A taskforce that was set up to deal with the effects of the bushfire crisis on overseas student numbers is now examining the fallout from the coronavirus breakout – with repercussions predicted far beyond the university sector. By Justine Landis-Hanley.

Universities and the China ban

Representatives from every state and territory government, and every major ministry – Health, Home Affairs, Trade and Education – met in Melbourne on Monday with delegates from the university sector, accommodation providers and the Council of International Students.

Their task was clear: to stop Australia’s education sector – the country’s third-largest export – haemorrhaging almost 100,000 international students after the Coalition government imposed a two-week travel ban from China to contain the spread of coronavirus.

Dealing with the fallout from an international pandemic was not in the group’s original remit.

Australia’s higher education Global Reputation Task Force, as it is known, was set up in January to deal with the impact of the summer’s bushfires on Australia’s reputation as a prime overseas study destination.

But on January 31, just a week after the team was announced, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a public health emergency. The next day, the federal government said it would deny entry to Australia to foreign nationals who were arriving from, or had recently transited through, mainland China.

Phil Honeywood, the taskforce’s chair, said the group was “not concerned about dollars as much as the soft diplomacy and the student welfare issues, and how we can enhance Australia’s reputation as a welcoming inclusive studying destination”.

Asked about the mood during this week’s meeting, Honeywood, who is chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia, told The Saturday Paper: “The sentiment in the room [was] really bad.”

No one in the group is oblivious to the toll a significant loss of Chinese international students could take on Australia’s economy.

Formerly Victoria’s Tertiary Education minister during the Kennett government, Honeywood made headlines this week when he told Nine newspapers Australia’s education industry could face an $8 billion hit from the China travel ban.

He explained to The Saturday Paper that this figure represents a “worst-case scenario”, but not one beyond the realm of possibility.

International students contributed a record high $37.6 billion to the Australian economy in the 2018-19 financial year. Of this group, Chinese international students are by far the most lucrative, contributing $12.1 billion in 2018-19, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Comparatively, students from India, the second-largest international cohort, brought in $5.5 billion.

Most of these Chinese students are now stuck in mainland China, according to the Department of Education. Looking at the 188,894 Chinese nationals holding Australian student visas, 106,680 (56 per cent) were still overseas as of February 1.

Australia’s universities will be the hardest hit by student losses. Our higher education sector has almost 157,000 Chinese international students, about 98,000 of whom are still overseas.

And the reputation of Australia’s prestigious Group of Eight universities – including the University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney – may in this case work against them; about 60 per cent of Chinese international students study at these institutions.

In response to questions from The Saturday Paper, Monash University and the Australian National University reported 11,000 and 5000 Chinese international students were enrolled this semester, respectively.

The University of Sydney said: “The federal government has informed us that approximately 15,000 Chinese visa holders linked to the University of Sydney are still overseas … [which] could also include partners and family members or students coming through pathway programs.”

The University of Queensland said it had 6000 students still in China, waiting for travel and quarantine advice. The University of Melbourne and University of Western Australia did not provide student numbers, while the remaining Group of Eight universities did not respond to questions prior to publication.

According to Honeywood, universities are concerned that they could permanently lose new Chinese students who are about to start two- or three-year degrees to other overseas study destinations, such as Canada or Britain – countries that don’t have a travel ban and where the first semester doesn’t begin until September.

“If [the students affected] have already done the first or second year of a degree or master’s, they are more than likely to return to Australia,” said Honeywood.

“The danger is that education agents who Australia relies on to send about 75 per cent of our international students could be thinking that if [the student] has already lost the first semester in Australia, why don’t they go to Canada or the UK?”

At the University of Sydney, some students have started a petition demanding classes be delayed and the enrolment cutoff date moved to April 14. Monash University has already delayed the start of the first semester by a week, while ANU and the University of New South Wales are offering winter trimesters.

But universities can only adjust the academic year so much, “so as not to compromise the education delivery to domestic students in the process”, Honeywood said.

Meanwhile, Australia is already competing with Britain’s promise of a two-year work visa for international students graduating from a bachelor’s degree or even a one-year master’s degree from a British university.

Richard Denniss, The Australia Institute’s chief economist, said the devastating bushfire crisis will also likely have an impact on international students, who come to Australia partly for a lifestyle now threatened by summers of smoke and fire.

“There is no doubt international students and Chinese students account for an enormous percentage of the universities’ revenue, but the consequences will be a lot broader than the universities,” he said. “A lot of parents come to visit their students while they are here, and students while they are studying here find it cheaper to travel around Australia over summer than overseas.

“While the coronavirus is going to have a very direct and measurable impact, even when that impact starts to wind down, the effects of the bushfires will start to ramp up.”

As Honeywood told The Saturday Paper, “It’s like the perfect storm.”

Beyond the loss of overseas students’ fees and spending, the travel ban could have broader economic consequences, warned James Laurenceson, director of the Australia–China Relations Institute at the University of Technology Sydney.

He said the ban could seriously impact one of the country’s main drivers of productivity growth: the creation of new knowledge.

More Australian researchers worked with Chinese co-authors last year than American ones, according to Laurenceson.

About 16 per cent of all Australian scientific publications now include a Chinese co-author, which goes up to more than 50 per cent for the highest-quality publications in artificial intelligence.

“This is the creation of new knowledge. That sort of collaboration can’t always be done by email, there is often visiting scholars involved, working in different labs, meaning this research can be threatened if you don’t have those people-to-people connections,” Laurenceson said.

“Consumer confidence might determine economic growth in this quarter, but over the next 10 years this will be productivity growth.”

More immediately, teaching staff – more than 50 per cent of whom have no employment security, according to the National Tertiary Education Union – could face a delay in the start of semester or receive less pay due to lower class numbers should the coronavirus travel ban lead to a drop in student enrolments this semester.

But, ultimately, universities won’t know whether the coronavirus has affected international student enrolments until March 31, the last day that students can currently unenrol from semester.

For Richard Denniss, this virus has exposed “the problems with university funding in Australia today”.

“The entire funding model for universities now relies on strong inflows of foreign students, and because of the bushfires and the coronavirus, those inflows are likely to be affected,” he said. “And anything that … has a significant effect on the Australian university sector will have a significant effect on employment and tourism.”

The Coalition’s China travel ban is set to be reviewed on February 14, and a source close to the Education minister’s office suspects a further ban will be imposed should the situation fail to improve.

The irony of Australia’s predicament has not been lost on James Laurenceson from UTS.

“Isn’t it funny that we have been worried that China might cut off the supply of students and tourists to punish us in an argument?” he said. “But it’s Australia that has cut ties.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 8, 2020 as "Student estrange".

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Justine Landis-Hanley is a Melbourne-based journalist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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