Research unis rely on Chinese fees

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One out of every six dollars used to run Australia’s oldest univer­sity comes directly from tuition fees paid by Chinese students, an HES analysis suggests.

While the University of Sydney says it hosts foreign students from more than 100 countries, about 58 per cent of them — more than 12,000 of the university’s 59,000-odd enrolments — come from China.

This suggests Chinese students provided about $354 million or 16 per cent of the university’s $2.2 billion operating revenue last year — $611m of which came from onshore international students, according to Sydney’s annual report.

The real contribution could be significantly higher, with Chinese enrolments skewed towards more lucrative courses. Sources say Chinese students dominate international enrolments at the University of Sydney Business School, which charges $60,000 for its MBAs.

A university spokeswoman declined to disclose Chinese enrolments in the business school, saying Sydney was “not currently making faculty breakdowns of student figures public” — even though its annual report lists enrolments by faculty.

The figures could heighten concerns over the higher education sector’s financial reliance on a revenue stream from a single country. This dependence was highlighted this month by a NSW Auditor-General’s report, which found that fees from international students provided 24 per cent of funding for the state’s 10 univer­sities last year — up from 18 per cent in 2012.

Foreign fees had effectively supplanted funding from the federal government, whose contribution to university coffers fell by six percentage points during the same period.

The reliance was heaviest in the research-intensive univer­sities of Sydney and NSW, where the international share of students soared by 5.1 and 3.5 percentage points respectively last year. Almost all of the $137m increase in revenue at Sydney last year came from the pockets of overseas students.

UNSW declined to quantify its Chinese students or their contribution to its coffers. A spokeswoman said China was the largest source country of its foreign students, as at other Australian universities, and that the country had a “strong cultural commitment to the importance of education”.

However, UNSW’s annual report gives hints of the fiscal disaster awaiting the university if Chinese students suddenly stopped playing that role, as experts have warned could happen.

While Chinese students make up about 38 per cent of the average university’s international enrolments, they comprise up to two-thirds at UNSW — twice as much as the next nine biggest markets combined.

On that figure, they contributed up to $370m of the $559m the university earned last year from fee-paying onshore overseas students, or 19 per cent of its overall revenue.

These figures do not include Chinese contributions through joint research or commercialisation ventures, such as the tens of millions of dollars in contracts UNSW secured after setting up a local hub of China’s “Torch” R&D seeding program.

The Weekend Australian recently reported concerns with such partnerships, saying Australian research could be boosting China’s advanced weapons capacity — with at least one Chinese company that collaborates with Australian academics openly declaring its aspiration to improve the People’s Liberation Army’s technological capability.

The article cited a joint UNSW project with Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, which has been banned from supplying products to the National Broadband Network on advice from ASIO.

The two universities’ revenue figures also exclude the considerable philanthropic donations from Chinese business interests. The Australian National University reportedly rejected a multimillion-dollar gift from a billionaire property developer last year following ASIO warnings about his links to the Chinese Communist Party.

Such donations lie at the centre of a debate over whether academic inquiry is being distorted by an over-reliance on Chinese money.

Australia is not alone in holding such fears. In a recent report, the US National Association of Scholars recommended that all American universities close their Confucius Institutes — Chinese government-backed teaching and research centres located in foreign institutions — citing murky contracts and financial dealings, as well as concerns about intellectual freedom.

By JOHN ROSS
The Australian

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