Do you know when Australia officially allowed Indian students?

The small but growing numbers of early Indian students proved active members of friendship associations between Australia and India.

In my award-winning article entitled “’Behind the white curtain’: Indian students and researchers in Australia, 1901–1950,” published in the journal History of Education Review with Prof. David Lowe, Deakin university, I looked at the experiences of Indian students in Australia during the first 50 years of the White Australia Policy (WAP). Our key purpose in this article was to highlight the reasons behind the involvement of the Australian government in the provision of scholarships and fellowships to Indian students and researchers during the period of WAP.

Using contemporary Australian newspaper reports and exploring popular representations of sponsored Indian university-level students and researchers in Australian media, from 1901 to 1950, this article provided a historical account of their experiences in Australia in the first half of the 20th century.

Post-1901, some Australian intellectuals and diplomats made compelling arguments for productive collaborations between Australia and India, especially in education and training. With the prevailing ethos of equal rights among citizens of the British Empire, the rising wave of Indian nationalism, and the subsequent decline of the British Raj, educated and rich Indians wanted to engage with Australia within similar positions of privilege and power.

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In 1904, the Australian government relaxed the administration of the Immigration Restriction Act (IRA) to allow “Indian merchants, students, and tourists” to enter the Commonwealth temporarily. People in these categories were often allowed to remain in Australia for up to 12 months (in rare cases seven years) with the condition that they must hold a valid passport issued by the government of India. Under this Act, only the Minister was empowered to grant a “certificate of exemption” from the dictation test. These were usually given to someone who would work in a local business of “community value”. However, the effect of the 1904 reforms was minimal in encouraging Indian students, as the maximum 12-month stay was hardly a good match with university study.

Representative image: Documentation for William Perera in 1915 (Source: National Archives of Australia)

In 1912, an Anglo-Indian student was denied a passage from Calcutta to Australia by the shipping company on the grounds that the Australian government won’t allow him to land anyway – as it had already done the same last year with another Anglo-Indian student. This unnamed student wished to attend an agriculture college in Queensland for a year. While the university had no problems in accepting him as a student, the Australian government’s permission never materialised.

With such conditions in front of them, most Indian parents and students preferred universities in the United Kingdom (UK), the United States of America (USA), and European countries. The entry of non-whites, especially students, into Australia was further made difficult by asking them to take prior written permission from the local and Australian governments before booking their passage.

Throughout 1900–1920, there was recurring anxiety and debate that the educated “Asiatics” would easily pass the dictation test (in English, French or German) and settle in Australia. However, educated Indians who visited Australia believed that Australian fears of the mass immigration of Indians were unfounded. 

Reverend Charles Freer Andrews, an Anglican educational Christian missionary and social reformer in India, was among those who supported the admission of Indian students to Australia. 

Image Source: Reverend Charles Freer Andrews (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1917, Rev. Andrews came on a goodwill mission with a proposal for an educational scheme sponsored by the Australian government. Under Andrews’ scheme, Indian students pursuing sciences and medicine would have benefited by studying at Australian universities. Andrews observed that such a scheme would “break down the extreme bitterness which exists in India against Australia on account of the exclusion policy the Commonwealth has adopted” (Chronicle, 22 December 1917). Some Australian university senates welcomed the idea in principle but this scheme was not even considered by the Australian government.

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In 1921, the University of Western Australia (UWA) became the first Australian university to pass a resolution inviting applications from Indian students, provided they pay fees (£40 per annum) comparable to other Australian university students. It is not clear how much of UWA’s scheme was influenced by Rev. Andrews’ original proposal. 

In 1936, a scheme very similar to Rev. Andrews’s proposal regarding the intake of Indian students was discussed at the University of Melbourne. It is pertinent to note here that the views of the university’s governing councils or senates may not be the views of professors or other employees.

Prof. Bailey, then acting Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, suggested that through such a plan it would be able: (1) to attract Indian students who usually prefer to go to England; (2) to “strengthen the position of India within the Empire”; and (3) also “correct the effects of the isolation and antipathy which the White Australia policy might create in the minds of educated Indians” (Examiner, 14 September 1936). 

Image source: Joseph Lyons, the tenth Prime Minister of Australia (National Archives of Australia)

In 1937, because of many more such efforts by Rev. Andrews, the University Senate committees and the Australian government, which was then under Joseph Lyons, the tenth Prime Minister of Australia, finally approved the entry of Indian students to Australia on a quota basis and for a 12-month study period.

The Australian government suggested some more criteria, such as the minimum age (19 years and above), educational qualification for enrolment (same standard as Australian universities), accommodation (definite arrangements for stay), employment (not undertaking any remunerative employment), etc.

Image source: Indian students at Geelong Textile College [photographic image] / photographer, K Dicker. 1 photographic negative: b&w, acetate, 1945 (National Archives of Australia, Series: A1200, L1569, Item id: 11656621)

The first Indian student to arrive in Australia under this quota system was A.L. Channarajurs of Mysore. Channarajurs came to undertake a sheep and wool course at East Sydney Technical College in 1937.

Channarajurs was followed, in 1939, by S.M. Thacore (Thakur), a 28-year-old post-graduate of Lucknow University. Before coming to Australia, Thacore taught for eight years at Lucknow Christian College. Thacore, son of a late Methodist minister, was given a free place to study agricultural economics out of 60 other Indian applicants. He not only studied but also visited the eastern states during the long vacations of his two-year course and attended the annual conference of the Australian Student Christian Movement (ASCM). This was done with the support of the ASCM at St George’s College of the University of Western Australia.

Post-World War II, in addition to the number of applications by Indian students to study in Australia, the requests from the Australian Student Christian Movement allowing for the intake of a large number of Indian students increased. This was also a result of authorities in the UK, USA, and Europe who were finding it extremely difficult to allow the entry of Asian students in their already overcrowded universities.

In 1945, the Australian government invited, under its Commonwealth Technical Assistance Scheme (CTAS), 18 Indian students to study nursing, and the following year eight students to study advance geological techniques along with three others to study agriculture and wool technology. These sponsored students were also expected to study the Australian way of life and various business methods.

In 1947, Arvind Gore, son of Dr V. V. Gore, private secretary to the Indian High Commissioner to Australia, Sir Raghunath Paranjpye, was admitted by the Australian government as a cadet at the Royal Military College, Duntroon. It was of significance as the Australian government looked keen to offer Indian students places and training in a variety of fields, especially those who would return and contribute towards the growing relationship between the two countries.

In 1948, as part of a global plan of the government of India to make itself better known among the nations, a goodwill mission and sponsorship program was initiated with the help of partner countries, where 600 Indian scholars and researchers were awarded a one-year scholarship of £400 to study in Australia, USA, UK, Russia, and South Africa.

Image source: Indian students meet Australian animals. [Indian students gather around a kangaroo] [photographic image] / photographer, R W Nicol. 1 photographic negative: b&w, acetate, 1966 (National Archives of Australia, Series: A1501, A6610/7, Item id: 7572784)

From 1948 to 1949, Dr K. Kirpal Singh (professor of horticulture), S.N. Gupta (exchange staff at Ogilvie High School, Hobart), Dr S. K. Krishna (Director, Forest Products Research and the Forest Research Institute), V. P. Sondhi (Deputy Director, Geological Survey of India), Lt. Col. M. L. Ahuja (Director, Central Research Institute) and Dr B. P. Pal (Joint Director, Indian Agricultural Research Institute) were some influential Indian researchers who were sponsored to visit Australia.

The purpose of their visits was to exchange ideas with their Australian counterparts in the fields of horticulture, education, scientific, agricultural, medical, and geological research. These visitors studied Australian industry practices and ways to introduce structured cooperative organisation in India. Some of these researchers also gave public addresses on India’s social life, religions, industry practices, the need for more exchanges between India and Australia, and other related subjects to local social bodies and schools. 

By 1950, around 18 Indian students were studying and researching in various Australian universities and institutes under the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) scheme financed by the Australian government. 

With the enactment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, de-colonisation gaining momentum in Africa and Asia, and questioning of race relations, policymakers in India looked at Australia and other parts of the white world for equality and collaboration.

Image source: An international play night was held in Canberra under the Colombo Plan and in aid of the building fund for International House, which is to be a residence for international (mostly Asian) and Australian students. It was staged by Mr and Mrs K. Ratnam, Official Secretary of the Indian High Commission with assistance from the Embasssies of China, Japan, and Indonesia and Burmees and Thai Legations and was opened by the wife of Australian Prime Minister, Dame Pattie Menzies – a scene form ” The Great Renunciation”. Channa (Mr S.N. Goel) explains the meaning of old age to Gotama Buddha (Dr E. Kondiah). The old man is played by Mr S.D.Mathur [photographic image]. Photograph / W. Pedersen. 1 photographic negative: b&w, acetate, 1954 (National Archives of Australia, Series: A1501, A41/1, Item id: 8865445)

The small but growing number of Indian students proved active members of friendship associations between Australia and India. The positive acceptance of Asian and Indian students by the Australian public made the Australian government cautiously but steadily commit to non-white overseas students intake.

In our article, we note that the shift from humanitarian aid to international student scholarships and exchange under the Colombo Plan logic of regional development and decolonisation occurred in the wake of racially framed, often criticised, but learning experiences with Indian students. The shift was an investment in cultural understanding for Australia. Although not entirely based on a broader commitment to race equality, Australia’s international education program was largely premised on the notion of foreign aid, realising the potential of education, helping its newly independent neighbours, and its power to change perceptions. These scholarships and fellowships opened-up avenues not just for more Indian students but also for internationalisation of Australia’s universities and its education programs.

For a detailed analysis, please see Amit Sarwal and David Lowe’s article “‘Behind the white curtain’: Indian students and researchers in Australia, 1901–1950,” published in the journal History of Education Review (5 October 2021).