Coronavirus uncertainty persists in Australia and New Zealand

Exemptions and detours under consideration, as universities and students grapple with open-ended travel bans

February 21, 2020
Uncertainty ahead

Coronavirus uncertainty continues to plague Antipodean higher education, with no end in sight to the travel bans hampering some 110,000 Chinese students from travelling south to commence or resume their degrees.

Australia has again extended its ban for another week on the advice of federal and state health officials. The decision means that foreign nationals arriving directly from China will not be able to enter Australia before 29 February at the earliest.

At the time the ban was imposed in early February, about 98,000 Chinese higher education students were caught overseas, according to Australia’s Home Affairs Department. University of Sydney sociologist Salvatore Babones has estimated that the ban will cost Australian education exports between A$2.8 billion (£1.4 billion) and A$3.8 billion, with universities incurring the bulk of these losses.

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s cabinet was expected to consider whether to extend that country’s travel ban on 24 February, when the current prohibition expires. New Zealand’s eight universities reportedly face losses of about NZ$170 million (£84 million) in forfeited tuition fees from 12,000 Chinese students.

Local media has reported that universities have asked the government to exempt students from the ban. Universities New Zealand chief executive Chris Whelan said it was one of a range of ideas in play.

“We’re exploring every option we can,” he said. “Our focus, fundamentally, is what on earth can we do to give our students in China as much certainty as possible?”

The Australian newspaper reported that Canberra was also believed to be considering whether to ease the conditions around the entry of Chinese students.

In a 20 February press conference, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government was “looking very carefully at…things we can do to try and minimise the impact on particular sectors”. He highlighted education as a sector in line for special treatment, saying universities and schools had been discussing “arrangements” with education minister Dan Tehan and health minister Greg Hunt.

An announcement by Mr Tehan the following day suggested steps were also afoot to mitigate the effects of the travel ban on English colleges. Releasing a draft international engagement strategy for the English language teaching sector, he talked up the possibilities.

“Eighty per cent of the world’s population doesn’t speak English and [it] is the most popular language to study, so the potential of this sector is enormous,” Mr Tehan said. “The strategy will map out opportunities to increase our English language teaching footprint in Australia, online and internationally.”

Meanwhile, Western Sydney University (WSU) confirmed that it was offering one-off A$1,500 “subsidy” payments to its Chinese students who managed to reach Australia by detouring via other countries. Under the government’s rules, foreigners who have been in China are eligible to enter Australia once they have spent at least a fortnight outside China.

A WSU spokeswoman said the university was encouraging its students to consider this option. “We want to assist them to realise their ambition and to get back on campus and on with their studies,” she said. She said WSU was offering the payment “in recognition of the additional costs incurred in travelling via another country”, and that students who declined the offer would still receive online support.

The Australian has reported a budding cottage industry in China, where travel agents are curating roundabout trips to Australia for the stranded students. The packages reportedly cost upwards of A$2,700, with students travelling via countries that have not imposed travel bans, such as Thailand and Cambodia.

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