A Chinese newspaper has condemned the Australian government over delays in student visa processing, in the latest sign that political tensions between the two countries are affecting Australia’s lucrative international education industry.
China’s Global Times newspaper says that “politically motivated application setbacks” are thwarting locals’ plans to undertake doctoral studies in Australia. And China’s scholarship agency has reportedly advised the country’s students to take their business elsewhere as a result.
The row is the latest skirmish in a war of words sparked by claims of Chinese meddling on Australian campuses, and new Australian foreign interference laws perceived as targeting China.
But it could send a chill down the spine of university finance executives, particularly at the research-intensive Group of Eight universities, where about one-sixth of revenue comes from the pockets of Chinese students.
The Global Times, a belligerent mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, has recently criticised Australian universities over safety issues and their treatment of Chinese students as “cash cows”.
On 12 March it reported that some 100 candidates with postgraduate enrolment offers from Australian universities had been waiting for their visas for “an abnormally long period” of more than six months.
“There is speculation that the visa trouble is related to recent tensions in Sino-Australian relations,” the paper reported. “There are also claims that Chinese spies have penetrated Australian communities.”
The article cites an engineering student who has “finally decided to abandon her dream of studying for a PhD in Australia”, opting instead for a British university.
Another says that he has “already given up on Australia. I advise others who want to pursue a PhD degree to be cautious and choose [your destination country] wisely,” he added.
The article says that the China Scholarship Council, an arm of the Chinese Education Ministry that provides financial support to Chinese students heading abroad, and foreigners studying in China, has warned of “long security checks” in Australian visa processing.
A website notice advises scholarship recipients that they can “file for an extension and switch to a different country”.
The warnings do not align with the latest statistics from Australia’s Department of Home Affairs, which show that approval rates and processing times for visa applications from China have changed little in the past 18 months. Chinese applicants wait for less time than people from most other countries, the figures suggest.
The International Education Association of Australia said that visa application grant rates and waiting periods had generally improved in recent years, although certain applications still took “a very long time”.
But chief executive Phil Honeywood said that Australian officials could do a better job of communicating with would-be students. He said that they should copy their American counterparts, who gave students and their agents feedback on the status of their applications.
“We don’t,” he said. “The application comes in, and we go silent until it’s approved or rejected. It would be good to have a system like the US, rather than the cone of silence.”