Diplomat perceives thaw in Sino-Australian education ties

While relations reboot bodes well for Australian institutions, transnational review threatens green shoots

October 18, 2019
ice icicles warming thaws

As Australian hand-wringing over China prompts warnings of a “new cold war”, an icy phase in the countries’ scholarly ties has thawed.

Beijing-based diplomat Brooke Hartigan said the educational relationship between the two nations was in “very reasonable shape”, notwithstanding ominous Australian media reports about research links with the East Asian giant.

Ms Hartigan said the relationship was “going better” than it had been in late 2017 and early 2018, when Australian education officials were given the cold shoulder in China and Chinese websites warned students of safety risks in Australia.

“We’ve seen an improvement in our engagement,” Ms Hartigan told the Australian International Education Conference in Perth. “We’ve been welcome to participate in conferences and had some very good engagement with Ministry of Education and government-affiliated contacts.”

The warmer treatment belies the frostiness of the broader bilateral relationship, as the two countries trade barbs reminiscent of the 2017 chill in relations. On 11 October, home affairs minister Peter Dutton vowed to “call out” Chinese behaviour that was “inconsistent” with Australian values.

“We have a very important trading relationship with China…but we are not going to allow university students to be unduly influenced [or] government or non-government bodies to be hacked,” he said.

The Chinese embassy condemned Mr Dutton’s “malicious slur” on the Communist Party as “an outright provocation to the Chinese people”.

In following days, ABC broadcasts claimed that joint research projects involving the two countries were undermining Australia’s national security and contributing to Chinese human rights abuses. Former Australian higher education minister Kim Carr said “Sinophobes” were “whipping up a new cold war” against China, and were overlooking the human rights records and hacking capabilities of other authoritarian regimes.

Ms Hartigan is minister counsellor for education and research at the Australian embassy in Beijing. She said developments such as the New South Wales government’s scrapping of its Confucius Classrooms programme, and the federal government’s establishment of the university task force on foreign interference, would not have gone unnoticed in China. “These things are picked up in Chinese media, as they are here,” she said.

Nevertheless, she said, lines of communication were open with entities such as the China Education Association for International Exchange and a newly formed body called the China Centre for International People-to-People Exchange.

Asked whether US educators enjoyed similar access, she said trade tensions appeared to be taking a toll. “There is a sense…that attention might be moving, in an educational sense, from US partnerships to other partners. And Australia is very much in line of sight.”

Ms Hartigan offered an upbeat assessment of the prospects for Australian institutions operating in China. She highlighted opportunities to deliver microcredentials under the country’s new hybrid model of combined academic and vocational education, known as the “1+X” system, although the scheme was still in its infancy.

And her team was close to finalising a memorandum of understanding with China’s Ministry of Education, charting areas of educational cooperation, to replace an agreement that expired in 2017.

She said Australia’s transnational education engagement with China included some 235 joint programmes, 13 joint institutes and more than 1,700 other kinds of partnerships. But approval processes for such relationships were onerous and likely to become tougher, with a current review expected to recommend a clampdown on joint programmes where students completed part of their courses in each country.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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