Australians fear Chinese impact on free speech and course places

Chinese students bring benefits but universities are too reliant on them and Canberra should ‘take a harder line’, respondents say

June 15, 2021
Melbourne, Australia - May 12, 2019 Chinese lion figurine. Chinatown shop along Little Bourke Street in the Central Business District (CBD) that sells oriental souvenirs.
Source: iStock

Australians believe that academic links with China generate economic and cultural benefits at the expense of free speech, course availability and universities’ financial sustainability.

A survey by the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) has revealed “complicated” perceptions of China among the 2,000 respondents. Thought to be the most comprehensive exploration of Australian public opinion on relations with the East Asian giant, the study exposes the domestic political imperatives driving policies that have saddled universities with a rapidly mounting security-related regulatory workload.

While around three-quarters of respondents mistrust Beijing and worry about the relationship with China, more than three-fifths want stronger connections and less than one-third believe Canberra is managing the relationship well.

Yet while some commentators have portrayed the federal government’s approach to China as ham-fisted – particularly in pre-empting the international community’s calls for an independent investigation of the origins of Covid-19 – 63 per cent of respondents said Canberra should “take a harder line” and 72 per cent said it had been right to publicly demand a Covid investigation.

Sixty-seven per cent deemed China a security threat, with 72 per cent describing foreign interference from China as a “major problem” – considerably more than those who expressed concerns about Russian meddling.

And while 76 per cent of respondents said students from China provided a “major economic benefit”, with 58 per cent crediting them with strengthening “people to people” links, an overwhelming 81 per cent said universities were too financially reliant on Chinese students and only 45 per cent said bringing those students back should be a post-pandemic priority.

Co-author Elena Collinson, a senior researcher with UTS’ Australia-China Relations Institute, said the findings highlighted the “difficult” task universities faced in managing domestic as well as Chinese expectations. “The Australian public seems to want better ties but at the same time is markedly concerned about aspects of the Australia-China relationship,” she said.

“On one hand, you’ve got the government and now the public saying universities are far too reliant on international students. On the other, you’ve got no other sources of revenue forthcoming.”

Referring to former prime minister Tony Abbott’s reported 2014 comments that Australian policies towards China were driven by a mixture of fear and greed, Ms Collinson said the findings suggested fear was now “assuming the upper hand”. The “striking” finding that 45 per cent of survey respondents would support the US in a war with China over Taiwan suggested that “the old formula of being able to ride two horses simultaneously” – maintaining good relations with both Australia’s top security partner and its top trading partner – was “starting to collapse”.

“What this means for the university sector is difficult to predict,” she said. “Polling is not an exact science. It’s a snapshot in time. These findings could herald the start of a tipping point or they could mark an amplification of uncertainties that have attached themselves to the relationship over the last few decades.”

Around half the respondents said university ties with China compromised Australian freedom of speech, with just one-quarter disagreeing. Four in 10 said Chinese students took university places from Australians and less than half were convinced that academic research collaborations with China made Australia more competitive, although almost seven in 10 nevertheless believed such links were “beneficial”.

UTS plans to repeat the survey every year.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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