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Coronavirus emergency delivers a personal hit to campus community

Vicki Thomson – The Australian – 12 February 2020

As the global coronavirus emergency continues, there should be no reticence to state bluntly that it is delivering a sudden and hard solar plexus blow to international education — Australia’s third largest export sector.

Especially after the economic hit of the recent bushfires, this sudden mega-hit to a $40bn export sector has been a true “black swan” event for the nation with immediate and possibly longer-term impact.

The Group of Eight represents Australia’s leading research-intensive universities. Our universities are globally revered for the quality of their teaching and research. As such they have been the vanguard of an excellent Australian university system that has attracted quality students from all over the world, including China

Our competitors for this fee-paying student group are the best of the best, universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, the universities of Toronto and British Columbia.

They (as with seven of the Go8) are listed in the world’s top 100 universities and located in countries that at the time of writing have not closed their borders to people from China.

Last year the Go8 was home to 63 per cent of enrolments from Chinese nationals studying in Australia. About 100,000 such students are due to arrive at Go8 universities for their study this year.

The government has advised the education sector that 98,000 Chinese students were unable to arrive in Australia before our borders were closed to them, which is a decision the Go8 must work within. Given the Go8’s exposure, it can be deduced that most of these students are ours. This is potentially a financial hit estimated by S&P Global at up to $3bn for all universities; one that left no time for risk mitigation.

The underlying political and economic context may not be familiar to many Australians.

The facts are that the Go8 welcomed Australia’s first student from China more than a half-century ago, and that subsequent numbers have been allowed to escalate by government and have been welcomed by our university sector. Chinese students are now part of our fabric.

The reason for this — in addition to our quality education offering — is mainly geographical.

We are situated close to China. Students’ families like that. We are in a similar time zone and, importantly, traditionally we have been viewed as a friendly and safe nation. Plus there has been a rapid rise in the number of Chinese families who are seeking to pursue an education overseas. After all, education and research are global pursuits, not ones with borders.

In that past half-century, Chinese students have become especially keen supporters of the Go8’s world-quality postgraduate training, and this has led to many lifelong friendships, partnerships and collaborations; all valued and enjoyed personally while being of mutual benefit to the economic growth of our two nations.

So, there is a genuine outpouring of concern from all universities for the health and wellbeing of our students who remain in China.

Irrespective of the economic impact to the sector, for us this is personal. We do very genuinely care that ways are found for their education to be minimally disrupted, with options such as distance educational support, opportun­ities to defer the start of their first semester studies, and “flipped” classroom models.

But it is also true these students have been welcomed as an economic contributor by successive Australian governments.

A recent London Economics study shows that for every three international students studying at a Go8 university, the broader economic impact for Australia is a positive $1m. This is not a matter for universities alone, this is a matter for all Australians — just ask all those in the tourism industry who are battling the fallout from the bushfires and now this.

As well as benefiting Australia’s trade balance, international student fees have replaced, in part, commonwealth funding for universities, particularly for research.

Without the good fortune of having a large cohort of international students, we would cease to have the top-tier universities that a nation such as ours needs and that future Australia students deserve. It is now just not possible to run a world-class research-intensive university on government funding alone.

It is also worth remembering that Australia, far more than other Western nations, relies on its universities to carry out most of its research. This is research that has many positive impacts, far too numerous to list here. But it includes work that provides solutions to global problems such as the rise of new viruses.

Even now, molecular clamp technology developed at the University of Queensland is being used in efforts to develop a vaccine for coronavirus.

In addition, researchers at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity — a joint venture between the University of Melbourne and the Royal Melbourne Hospital — were the first to grow the Wuhan coronavirus in cell culture outside China, allowing more accurate investigation and diagnosis of the virus globally.

Go8 universities have worked hard to deliver this world-leading research capacity which is now well recognised.

For example, the number of Go8 universities ranked in the top 100 globally increased from two in 2007 to seven last year.

But it has come at a cost. In 2017 (the latest year with complete figures) government provided only 24 per cent of the Go8’s recurrent funding.

International students provided another 27 per cent and domestic students 15 per cent — including through HELP payments.

That said, the Morrison government and its Treasury, its Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs officials, and especially Education Minister Dan Tehan, have stated that they see value in this financial pendulum being corrected; and they said so before coronavirus struck.

We have taken those statements to us on trust and we will work with the government to work through this difficult period for our nation, our universities and our economy.