Australian education minister Dan Tehan has sidestepped questions over whether his nation is over-reliant on Chinese students’ tuition fees to bankroll research at the nation’s universities.
And Mr Tehan refused to buy into a suggestion from University of Queensland chancellor Peter Varghese that universities should put revenues from Chinese students into a trust fund to insulate themselves against a future drop in enrolments from East Asia.
Mr Varghese, a former head of Australia’s foreign affairs department, warned an Adelaide conference last week that China could deliberately curb student flows into Australia because of geopolitical tensions.
But Mr Tehan said Mr Varghese’s proposal was just one idea among “many”. And he told journalists at the Australian International Education Conference, in Sydney, that it was up to universities to ensure that their revenue sources were sustainable.
“The government wants to ensure that our educators have a strategic vision,” he said. “We want to make sure that each university thinks about how best it can set itself up for the future.
“We have great confidence in their past performance as a great indicator of their future performance. They need to plan for how they can best cater for their economic needs going forward, and where they will get their overseas students from.”
China is the dominant source of students for Australia’s A$32 billion (£17 billion) education export industry. Mr Tehan said educators understood that “you always have to be careful not to put all your eggs in one basket”. He said they were diversifying into alternative markets including Latin America, Africa and other parts of Asia.
But he would not say whether the government was concerned that a substantial portion of Australian university research was funded by Chinese students, and would not be possible if they stopped coming.
“I want to see our international education sector continue to flourish. It will if universities continue doing what they do best – offering first-class education but also ensuring that Australia as a destination is a first-class place for students to come and study.”
He cited a yet-to-be-released report showing 90 per cent satisfaction rates among foreign students in Australia, and predictions that the country may soon supplant the UK as the second-biggest destination for globally mobile students.
“We’ve got feedback from the UK that they are concerned that Australia is likely to overtake them. They’re looking to us to see what we’re doing and doing so successfully. [That] is something we should be proud of as a nation.”