Beijing warning ‘will have limited effect’ on Australian recruitment

Past advisories have not quenched Chinese students’ thirst for overseas study

June 10, 2020

China’s safety warning about studying in Australia is based on flimsy evidence and will have limited impact, observers say.

In a posting on its Chinese language website, China’s education ministry warned students to weigh the risks of visiting Australia following an upsurge in “discriminatory incidents against Asians” during the pandemic.

China’s embassy in Canberra issued a similar warning in December 2017, following an attack against two Chinese school students in a bus interchange, and amid bilateral tension over Australia’s proposed anti-espionage legislation.

However, the new warning has come from a Beijing-based central agency during a pandemic. No other country has been the subject of such a warning this year.

People of Chinese and Asian appearance have experienced increasing discrimination around the world during the coronavirus crisis. A February study identified problems in the US, Canada, the UK, continental Europe, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam as well as Australia.

One source questioned how concerned Australia should be about a travel advisory issued during a period when travel was impossible anyway because of pandemic-related border closures. He said Beijing would take more precipitous action than merely issuing an advisory if it “really wanted to put the brakes on”.

Phil Honeywood, CEO of the International Education Association of Australia, said the travel restrictions offered a window of opportunity to “crank up the ministerial-level discussions” and resolve differences.

“Chinese families, by word of mouth, have known that Australia’s a safe, welcoming, multicultural country for many years,” he added. “With over 200,000 Chinese students coming here every year, the word-of-mouth reputation will go a long way to mitigate the reputational hit from official advisories.”

The December 2017 safety warning appeared to have little effect on Chinese people’s appetite for study in Australia. Some 2 per cent more student visa applications were lodged from China than in December 2016, with numbers rising 4 per cent over the following six months.

South Korea also reportedly experienced a slight increase in Chinese enrolments between 2017 and 2018, despite travel restrictions imposed by Beijing in mid-2017 amid a dispute over a US missile defence system.

However, New Zealand’s international education industry suffered a significant downturn following a Chinese government warning about exploitation of students in English language colleges in the mid-2000s. Chinese enrolments in New Zealand subsequently collapsed by about 44 per cent.

Mr Honeywood said this was unlikely to happen to Australia’s “more mature” industry.

Innovative Research Universities chief executive Conor King said that while there had been an increase in comments about China “because of Covid”, it entailed “no serious danger”.

“We want Chinese students to be able to come back,” he said. “But part of that is expecting that people will make comments about the way China operates in places like Hong Kong.

“People will put out their views. That’s part of the benefit of coming to an Australian university. You hear points you may not like, and you can put your counter case.”

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