Former Victorian premier John Brumby has rejected concerns about China’s influence in Australia higher education sector, while at the same time warning that Australia is not ready for a massive boom in Chinese tourism.
Speaking as president of the Australia China Business Council, Mr Brumby sought to downplay recent comments from Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson that universities need to remain secure and resilient against potential foreign interference.
“We don’t see that in business. I think with influence every country around the world exerts its own influence internationally and China is no different,” Mr Brumby told the ABC’s AM program.
“What we’ve got to make sure in Australia is that we stick to our values and our views around the world.”
Mr Brumby said that, in his role as a university lecturer, he has seen no evidence of influence or interference that concerned him.
“My first hand experience as someone who has a lot of contact with students from masters level down is that I don’t see any influence,” he responded.
“I see happy students, keen students, students who want to learn.”
Concerns about growing Chinese influence were fuelled when Frances Adamson used a speech in Adelaide to warn that universities needed to be on alert.
“We have seen attempts at untoward influence and interference,” Ms Adamson said told an audience at Adelaide University’s Confucius Institute.
“When confronted with awkward choices, it is up to us to choose our response, whether to make an uncomfortable compromise or decide instead to remain true to our values, “immune from intolerance or external influence” as Adelaide University’s founders envisaged.”
Earlier this week, the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham agreed with Ms Adamson that Australian universities needed to be vigilant about their academic integrity and independence.
Chinese visitor numbers to triple in a decade
Concerns about China’s growing influence come as the Australia China Business Council released research showing the number of Chinese tourists visiting Australia is set to more than triple to 3.3 million per year by 2026.
The report, conducted with LEK Consulting and Trade Victoria, observed that more than a million Chinese tourists visited Australia last year and spent $9.2 billion, underscoring the deepening economic and trade relationship.
However, Australia’s ability to handle the projected Chinese tourist boom has been highlighted as a concern, with a China Readiness Score reading only 65 out of 100.
John Brumby pointed to recommendations urging better Mandarin signage, improved transport and the availability of Chinese payment options like Alipay.
Mr Brumby said Australia’s accommodation sector is particularly under pressure from the expected boom in Chinese tourist numbers,
“We’re not really ready. We’ve had issues with Chinese new year when you get 150,000 or 200,000 tourists and the hotels struggle,” Mr Brumby said.
“So if they’re [hotels] are struggling now they’re really going to struggle with 3.3 million visitors.”
The rise of Chinese tourism is also likely to overtake the importance of Australian exports of iron ore to China, according to Mr Brumby.
“Put education, financial services and tourism together and the services market for a state like Victoria is already much more important than the resources market,” he said.
By Peter Ryan