Covid-19 coronavirus crisis: university offers itself as online fallback

‘We’re all in this together’, v-c insists, as universities scramble to teach 100,000 stranded students

February 12, 2020
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A Queensland university has offered itself as an online backup for rival institutions’ Chinese students, as Australian universities seek ways to teach almost 100,000 people stranded in China by the Covid-19 coronavirus-related travel ban.

The University of Southern Queensland (USQ) has offered 25 per cent “fee scholarships” to Chinese students who are unable to attend their regular Australian campuses in semester one, and opt to study online with USQ instead.

Vice-chancellor Geraldine Mackenzie described the offer as a “goodwill gesture, backed by our expertise and experience in online learning, to ensure that the Australian university sector continues to maintain its excellent reputation in China”.

Students who wanted to take up the opportunity for “cross-institutional study” would need approval from their regular universities, she stressed.

The offer comes as Australian institutions with significant Chinese enrolments seek ways to maintain course continuity. Most – including Melbourne, Monash, Queensland, Sydney and University of Technology Sydney (UTS) – are giving some or all of their Chinese students the option of studying online for between two and five weeks, and in some cases a full semester.

Experts question the technical feasibility of rapidly escalating online options for Chinese students accustomed to on-campus delivery. But Professor Mackenzie said USQ had a “proud” history of distance education.

She said USQ courses had been studied online by Chinese students for decades. Over the past three years people in China had studied 14 USQ degrees online, in areas including commerce, science and business administration.

An education consultant said USQ’s offer raised “all sorts of logistical problems” – such as the compatibility of its course content – and appeared to be an attempt to shore up international enrolments at rival universities’ expense.

The consultant, who asked not to be named, said USQ should have discussed the option privately with other universities rather than “going over their heads [and] trying to get the affected students to…go to USQ for the semester”.

Professor Mackenzie emphatically denied any intention to “poach”. She said USQ had discussed the option with other universities last week, and other online-intensive institutions had made similar offers.

She said she expected very few students to take up the option: “It certainly won’t be in the thousands and it won’t be in the hundreds. At most it will be someone wanting to pick up a couple of subjects in maybe a business degree.

“We made the offer because we already have students studying online in China with our partner institutions. Very few of us have that sort of capability. To be brutally frank, a student currently enrolled in the University of Sydney isn’t going to suddenly change to USQ based on doing one or two subjects with us externally.”

USQ and other regional universities have attracted little of the massive cash injection that Chinese students have delivered to large research-intensive universities. University of Sydney sociologist Salvatore Babones has calculated that the Group of Eight institutions and UTS collectively attracted A$2.79 billion (£1.45 billion) from Chinese students in 2018. USQ earned just A$45 million from its entire international cohort.

But Professor Mackenzie said all Australian universities would suffer if the virus crisis turned students off Australia. “At the moment, everybody’s doing everything they can to help. There’s a real sense of camaraderie in this because we’re all in it together.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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