The peak body representing Australia’s elite universities has for the first time acknowledged there have been “isolated” instances of Chinese government interference on campuses but warned mishandling the issue risks the country’s third-largest export market.
In an interview with The Weekend Australian, Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said the response to China’s influence within universities must be countered in a “measured way” to prevent a backlash and protect the international education sector.
Unprecedented growth in international student enrolments, largely driven by the influx of approximately 170,000 Chinese nationals, resulted in a $22 billion boost to the Australian economy in the 2016-17 financial year — an 18.5 per cent increase on the year before.
In four prominent cases this year, academic staff at Australian universities have been targeted in Chinese social media campaigns after complaints from Chinese international students about “offensive” teaching material.
In the case at the University of Sydney, the institution issued an apology on behalf of the lecturer for using a map which did not show the Chinese interpretation of their territory.
In cases at the University of Newcastle and Monash University, Chinese consulate education counsellors became involved, sparking debate about academic freedom. The Chinese government also supervises students in Australia through Chinese student and scholars associations inside universities.
Prominent think tank China Matters this week called on the Group of Eight and the federal Education Department to set new standards to resist pressure from Chinese government officials to change academic content.
The report also said some students were “encouraged to engage in intelligence-gathering” and report on their fellow students and teachers.
In June, Australian National University associate professor Sally Sargeson said she believed there were embassy “stooges” recording and reporting on what other Chinese citizen students said in classes, stifling freedom of expression.
In her role as chief executive, Ms Thomson represents the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University, the University of Sydney, the University of Queensland, the University of Western Australia, the University of Adelaide, Monash University and UNSW Sydney. She said while she had not seen “a rapid increase in consulate intervention”, there were cases of questionable behaviour and breaches of conduct.
“Clearly it’s happening at ANU because you’ve got that example,” she said. “But anecdotally we’ve got intelligence that that might be happening to some degree. We don’t want … domestic or international students in an environment where they can be unduly influencing their particular cohort. (But) is it happening in a broad, widespread way? There’s no evidence of that.”
Ms Thomson, who reports to the Group of Eight board, which includes the vice-chancellors from the elite universities, said: “A measured approach needs to be taken rather than thinking that every Chinese student on campus is a spy. You have got to be really careful of the backlash that can create because the fact is we have a lot of Chinese students in Australia and we value them.”
But Ms Thomson conceded the case reported by The Australian at the University of Sydney was “concerning”. “We’re not going to gild the lily and say that’s not a concern,” she said.
Phil Honeywood, head of the International Education Association, said “turning off the tap” would put Australia’s economy at risk.
“It would be a major hit to our market,” Mr Honeywood said.
Ms Thomson agreed and said there was a huge reliance by universities on these students for income. “There is a much broader issue and that is we have a very heavy reliance on a particular cohort of students, and that is Chinese students, and that can shift the balance, and that might not be appropriate for them or for us,” Ms Thomson said.
Ms Thomson, who also sits on the Australia-China Council board, said it remained critical to work through a “clash of different cultures” in response to improved international ratings at Chinese universities.
“We’ve got a highly competitive environment where Chinese students are increasingly choosing to study in China because they have such fantastic universities so there is a financial risk factor there for Australia’s universities,” she said.
Craig Whitsed, a senior lecturer at Curtin University’s School of Education, said: “(There are) interesting implications for a sector so dependent on international student revenue for continued viability long term.”
By PRIMROSE RIORDAN