Chinese students ‘positive’ about Australia despite tension

AI analysis of online activity reveals ‘really nice’ sentiment and sophisticated understanding of government structures

November 15, 2021
University of Sydney migration expert Anna Boucher
University of Sydney political scientist Anna Boucher: "Australia's being well researched, in a way we wouldn't anticipate."

Chinese students’ feelings about Australia have warmed over the past year as would-be scholars gauge the southern nation’s attractions as a home.

An artificial intelligence-based analysis has found that Chinese sentiment towards Antipodean higher education bears little in common with the strained political relations between the two countries. Australia rates ahead of its major anglophone rivals as a place to study, followed by Canada, the US and the UK in that order, according to the study.

Chinese internet surfers focus not just on universities and colleges but also the health system, schools and lifestyle attributes, suggesting that they are appraising Australia as a place to settle down rather than just study. Their awareness of sympathetic state policies, often at odds with the federal government’s uncompassionate stance towards international students during the pandemic, demonstrates their surprisingly sophisticated appreciation of Australia’s governance structures.

“They understand federalism,” said University of Sydney migration expert Anna Boucher. “They understand that not everything can be pinned on the federal government. Australia’s being well researched, in a way we wouldn’t anticipate.”

Dr Boucher said would-be students’ interest in primary schools suggested that some Chinese 20-year-olds were choosing places to study based on the services available to their future offspring. “They’re thinking, [my] children will go to a great private school in [the Sydney suburb of] Hurstville. They’ll do really well and make the family proud. There’s this kind of intergenerational thinking going on.”

The “counterintuitive” findings come from a machine learning analysis of millions of interactions with open access Mandarin websites, blogs and social media. Dr Boucher teamed up with market research company Maven Data to measure the intensity of engagement with Australian higher education, scouring petabytes of data in November 2020 and again in August 2021.

Maven managing director Elisa Choy, a guest lecturer at Sydney, said the approach provided access to vast sample sizes and – unlike surveys or focus groups – considered people’s emotions rather than their professed opinions or intentions.

The technique had been used to accurately predict outcomes of “real-world market scenarios” from the winners of television shows The Voice and MasterChef to key battleground state results in the 2020 US presidential election. “It’s about having the right data and the right method to answer the right questions,” Ms Choy said. “People usually don’t say what they actually think.”

The analysis suggests that students are captivated by “fundamental needs” such as safety and employment, irrespective of Beijing’s denunciation of Australian policies and race relations. “When we’re shaping how we revive the sector, knowing what matters to people at this level is far more important than argy-bargy we hear in the news,” Ms Choy said.

“Really, it’s up to the government to set policy to open the doors again because demand is there. If that doesn’t happen, that’s a shame, because there’s generally really nice sentiment towards Australia.”

Dr Boucher said the findings suggested that university advertising could focus more on things such as Australia’s beauty, lifestyle and natural environment. “Maybe the global ranking is not the most important thing,” she said.

She said a similar analysis of Indian students had revealed a “very nuanced” understanding of racism in Australia, including a degree of tolerance. “As an Anglo-Celtic person, I don’t understand what it’s like to live with racism on a daily basis. Maybe on some level one just learns to accept it or even have contradictory views about it.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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