Coronavirus, Chinese students and the university cash quagmire

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Cartoon by Paul Dorin / @DorinToons

Australia’s Chinese students are languishing in China due to the coronavirus travel ban and our universities, over-reliant on Chinese students, are feeling the financial strain, writes Dr Binoy Kampmark.

IT HAD TO COME. Australian universities, as with the broader Australian economy, are dangerously over-reliant on single cash sources. 

The answer seems to be the same across the board: China. 

While Australian politicians mock Chinese companies and political authoritarianism, wishing to keep the People's Republic of China distant, they are relieved at each coal or iron ore shipment that finds its way into the Chinese market. The same goes for enrolments from Chinese students, which have become a form of welfare for Australian higher education.    

On February 14, when probed on ABC News Breakfast as to how Australian universities had overindulged in the Chinese student market, Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson dissembled. Sounding like a well-greased political apparatchik, she ignored any specific reference to China, referring to students “in general” and their wellbeing. But there was nothing general about it. Chinese students have been delayed returning to Australia to resume, or start their studies.   

Nearly a third of Australia’s Chinese students find themselves languishing in China because of the Australian Government’s coronavirus (COVID-19) travel ban. 

On February 1, the Morrison Government stated that foreign nationals in mainland China

'will not be allowed to enter Australia for 14 days from the time they have left or transited through mainland China.' 

While some other countries have also imposed such bans, the standout feature of this is that other markets vying for Chinese higher education applicants have not. Just to make matters worse, the travel ban has been extended by a further week

The Education Consultant Association of Australia has found – via a survey done between February 5 and 9 on WeChat – that 32% of the 16,000 students surveyed are happy to enrol in another country if they cannot commence studies in first semester this year. The UK, Canada and the United States all feature as credible “redirection destinations”. The UK comes in most favourably at 58%, Canada at 31% and the United States at 6%.

Officially, Jackson maintains

“We have continued providing clear advice and reassurance on study options.  This is a rapidly evolving situation, and we have been working through all eventualities with the Government and carefully following all advice from Australian medical authorities.” 

Both Universities Australia and Education Minister Dan Tehan have had talks on how best to respond to the crisis. Flexibility of a “maximum” sort has been promised. Deferrals, adjustments and alternative learning options are on the table. Some universities have delayed the commencement of the first semester

Tehan states:

'The Government’s assistance has supported universities to undertake the significant task of making direct contact with all 100,000 Chinese students who remain outside Australia.' 

Such notes of reassurance, even blind optimism, diverged from the concerns of Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight universities, who told SBS that the findings of the Education Consultants Association of Australia were

"a real signal of concern … that these students will go elsewhere.” 

The loss of students would not merely deprive universities of their cash but affect other industries, be they hospitality or retail. 

This impending calamity has been a point for various Cassandras who have warned Australian universities that overindulgence in the Chinese education market would eventually come home to roost. 

In August last year, Salvatore Babones – attached to the Centre for Independent Studies – noted what everybody in tertiary education should know: 

'Australian universities are extraordinarily exposed to the Chinese market, and by extraordinarily I mean that Australian universities have a multiple of several times the number of Chinese students of any comparable university in the world.'

The outcome of any large percentage decline, he argues, would be“catastrophic”.

The crisis has also presented certain universities with their own cash opportunity. In that sense, Australian universities are showing their true, cash-driven colours — exploit the student base, deliver modest if not mediocre content and hope for increased enrolment numbers. As a vast, abundant milch cow, the Chinese student market is there to be plundered. It’s not so much the learning that counts but the offering of tailored services. 

The University of Southern Queensland is leading the pack on this, leaping at the chance to offer 25% “fee scholarships” to those unable to attend their appointed university in semester one. The condition is simple: study with USQ on the proviso that cross-institutional affiliation is secured. 

Instead of deeming it an example of educational mercantilism, USQ vice-chancellor Geraldine Mackenzie sees it as a “goodwill gesture, backed by our expertise and experience in online learning, to ensure that the Australian university sector continues to maintain its excellent reputation with China.”  For those familiar with the turf wars universities wage, be it over accreditation, course content or overall recognition, the gesture seems foolhardy, if not greedy. It’s certainly not actuated by goodwill.

As is the nature of all vice-chancellors, Mackenzie could not help but trumpet the virtues of her own institution: 

“Offering online courses in China is a not a new thing for the University of Southern Queensland. Our courses have been studied online by Chinese students for decades.”

The decision has disturbed the holy citadel of Australia’s education establishment. An unnamed education consultant, evidently preferring to avoid blacklisting, suggested to Times Higher Education that the offer by USQ threw up a range of “logistical problems”. Course compatibility was cited as a critical problem. 

USQ should have discussed the matter in advance with other institutions instead of

"... going over their heads [and] trying to get the affected students to … go to USQ for the semester.” 

While such criticisms are well-founded, the blame must lie with an Australian university sector that has laid the seeds of its own downfall with bloated managerial bureaucracies motivated by kleptomania, the casualisation of Australia’s academic workforce and a workplace hostile to academic freedom and independent thinking. 

The loss of Chinese students will be a fitting and shocking reminder as to who counts in the education stakes.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Cambridge Scholar and is a lecturer at RMIT University. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @BKampmark.


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