Australian universities ‘could end up doing well’ after coronavirus

Universities Australia conference also hears jurist stress human side of crisis, urging government to establish a ‘special student support fund’

February 26, 2020

Australia could ultimately profit from the coronavirus crisis currently preventing tens of thousands of international students from starting or resuming their studies at the country’s universities, a Canberra forum has heard.

Justin Wolfers, an Australian-born economist based at the University of Michigan, said China was a vitally important source of students for Australian universities. But the reverse did not necessarily apply. “The fact that China is important to us shouldn’t be confused with us being important to China,” he told the Universities Australia (UA) conference.

“We’re a relatively small destination for Chinese students. If someone else screws up, it could turn out to be good news for us. It’s possible that the Australian sector could end up doing well rather than badly.”

Professor Wolfers said the crisis had hit Australian universities at a “uniquely” bad time in their academic calendar, and they risked losing perhaps one-quarter of their Chinese enrolments as a result. But the losses could be erased by a policy misstep in the US, which attracted far more Chinese students than Australia.

“This will shock you, but there’s some possibility of bad policy in the US right now,” he told the conference, adding that some 320,000 Chinese students were currently in US universities. If the coronavirus forced one-quarter of them to seek alternatives, and about one in five of these students gravitated to Australia instead, its universities would be close to breaking even.

Professor Wolfers stressed that these were “illustrative” projections, and many of the displaced students might stay at home instead. “But it’s not just the Americans who could mess up and send more students our way as a result.

“And what if the US committed some deep policy error, and managed to deter 40 per cent of the Chinese students who otherwise would have come their way? There was a serious proposal from [White House aide] Stephen Miller to ban Chinese students from the US. If that were the case, we’d gain [perhaps] 27,000 students – offsetting many of those we would have lost.”

The outbreak of Covid-19 and the related travel ban cast a shadow on the UA conference, which commenced on 26 February. Publicly, vice-chancellors have stressed student welfare as their overriding concern. “Our focus is entirely on public safety and the well-being of students,” UA chairwoman Debby Terry told the National Press Club.

But privately, vice-chancellors say the issue could play in Australian universities’ favour, given that the entire world is grappling with the same problem. One told Times Higher Education that the refusal to admit travellers from China could reinforce Australia’s image as a health-conscious host. Another said Australia’s small caseload of coronavirus infection would boost its reputation for safety.

Former High Court judge and Macquarie University chancellor Michael Kirby said universities must recognise the crisis as a “human catastrophe” rather than an economic problem. Mr Kirby said the government should consider a “dramatic and huge gift” to the people of China, in line with Australia’s A$1 billion (£507 million) aid package to Indonesia following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

“Even if it was only done as a cold-eyed contribution to stabilise a vital long-term investment, it could be timely for an Australian government to announce a special student support fund of millions of dollars,” he told the conference.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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