A western Pacific diplomatic incident could help trigger the “perfect storm” that jeopardises Chinese enrolments and brings Australian research to its knees.
University of Queensland physical chemist Alan Rowan said geopolitical ructions could upset the balance between Australia’s university sector and China, which is its biggest customer and fastest growing competitor.
Professor Rowan, who directs UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, highlighted the risk of depending on teaching income to supplement diminishing research funding, particularly when universities were competing with massive open online courses for students.
“Imagine something happened in the China Sea,” he told The Australian’s Research Luncheon last week. “At a certain point, if they stop coming, then the whole thing rapidly falls down. In any business, if the revenue comes from one source, you have a risk. It takes years to build up research but it takes days to destroy it.”
China is easily the biggest source country of overseas students in Australia, providing 27 per cent of the $23.6 billion earned from education exports.
In June, a NSW Auditor-General’s report found that international students supplied 24 per cent of funding across the state’s 10 universities, with the increasing reliance on foreign fees mirroring a decline in federal funding. An HES investigation estimated that about 16 per cent of operating revenue at the University of Sydney last year — and 19 per cent at cross-town rival the University of NSW — came directly from the pockets of Chinese students.
Iain Watson, UQ’s deputy vice-chancellor (external engagement), said the Chinese student market had generated $115 million — 7 per cent of the university’s budget — last year. “Overall demand and enrolments from China remain high and are forecast to continue strongly over the next decade,” Professor Watson said.
“However, UQ is mindful that an evolving Chinese economy and competition … are contributing to a significant transformation of the international education landscape. As such, we will increasingly look to diversify enrolments from within China and look to other markets such as India.”
His remarks come amid a spate of Chinese student protests over perceived insults on Australian campuses. Last month, a University of Newcastle academic triggered outrage by referring to Taiwan and Hong Kong as “countries”. Days earlier, a Sydney University IT lecturer had to issue a public apology over a map of India that included territory claimed by China.
An Australian National University academic also apologised after translating a warning about cheating into Mandarin, while a Monash University lecturer was suspended in May over claims he had made fun of Chinese officials. Last week, the editor of a Melbourne blog for Chinese students denounced himself after publishing a map of China that excluded Taiwan.
Last month, University World News reported that Chinese student flows to Taiwan had halved after mainland authorities withheld permits to study at some of the island’s universities over perceived “pro-Taiwan independence activities”. The newspaper also reported a dramatic drop in Chinese enrolments in South Korea, where about 60 per cent of foreign students come from China, in reaction to South Korea’s decision to deploy a US missile shield system.
Meanwhile, Chinese universities are scaling the league tables of the world’s best institutions. In the latest edition of Times Higher Education’s rankings, Peking and Tsinghua universities outperformed Australia’s chart-topper, the University of Melbourne.
Chinese students often eschew Australia if they can land places in the top local institutions. Professor Rowan warned that this trend could only accelerate, thanks to “phenomenal” investment in Chinese higher education.
“In Tianjin, they’ve just built a whole new campus for 45,000 students,” he told the forum. “They have state-of-the-art equipment. They’ve just had the best scientists come back from America. We have to get our act together because at a certain point it’s going to be so good there that they don’t need to come here.”
By JOHN ROSS