As Sino-Australian tensions grow, universities are caught in the crossfire. And, according to one leading China analyst, things will probably get worse before they get better.
Philipp Ivanov, the chief executive of the Asia Society Australia thinktank, said that university leaders and diplomats were being quizzed by Chinese authorities seeking explanations of Australian policies and media rhetoric on topics such as academic freedom and foreign interference. And he highlighted that education and tourism were vulnerable to Beijing’s displeasure in a way that other industries with strong China ties – such as mining exports – were not.
“Because of the volume of travel and interaction with the Chinese government, university executives hear these views in a much more robust way,” Mr Ivanov said. “Also, because this is such a people-focused sector, it’s much more sensitive to changes in public opinion than iron ore or coal.”
Vladivostok-born Mr Ivanov was previously manager of the Australia-China Council at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and co-authored the 2012 White Paper Australia in the Asian Century. He has also advised the University of Sydney on China strategy and headed its Research Institute for Asia and the Pacific.
He told Times Higher Education that some Australian universities were over-reliant on international student fees. “What’s more important is that some universities are over-reliant on one country – China – which also happens to have the most policy levers to limit sending its students to Australia, if there is some complex issue that they don’t agree on. That creates a massive risk for some universities.”
Mr Ivanov said that there was no evidence so far that the Chinese government was using the levers to “punish” Australia by restricting student flows. “But there is anecdotal evidence that there are questions asked in China about whether our attitude and policies to Chinese students are changing,” he said.
“Everyone is watching that very closely. If I were a vice-chancellor of an Australian university, I would be watching it very closely.”
Some of the tensions directly involve universities. They include perceptions that Chinese officials and students are flexing their muscles to limit academic freedom on Australian campuses. Concerns have also been expressed over the safety of Chinese students in Australia and about delays in processing Chinese student visas by Australian immigration officials.
At a broader level, there has been diplomatic friction over Chinese interests inveigling themselves in Australian politics – an issue that triggered the resignation of high-flying Labor senator Sam Dastyari – and perceptions that Australia’s proposed laws limiting foreign interference are targeted at China. Australia has also earned Chinese ire for criticising Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea.
China has reportedly responded by cancelling or postponing educational exchanges, including a planned visit by Australian vice-chancellors this month, and by officially cautioning its students about Australian safety and visa processing issues.
However, there is a counter view that meetings have been postponed simply because Chinese officials were double-booked after last month’s National People’s Congress locked up their diaries. And it has been suggested that the safety warnings had originated not in China’s Ministry of Education, as claimed in the media, but rather in its Australian embassy and consulates.
Meanwhile, concerns about safety have not dampened Chinese appetite for study in the US: university shootings have failed to prevent Chinese tertiary enrolments there from increasing at almost 7 per cent – double the overall rate of international education growth.
Chinese enrolments are also growing in Australia, but ambiguous signs – including flagging interest in foundation courses, and a trend for Chinese students to apply for student visas from within Australia rather than their own country – raise questions over whether this can last.
Mr Ivanov said that there were signs that Chinese bodies involved in granting scholarships and regulating students had developed a “less welcome attitude” to their Australian counterparts. “Hopefully this is just a cold shoulder, and we’ll find a way to recalibrate and go on,” he said.
“The important thing is to ensure that it doesn’t go from cold shoulder to restrictive measures that actually affect students or joint research. Contrary to some of the debate in the media, most research and education exchanges with China are positive and contribute to both countries.”
He said that Australian discourse had shifted from viewing China as its largest trading partner and a “saviour” during the global financial downturn, to seeing it as a “dark power that’s trying to take over Australia”. This was partly because the media had aired “things that haven’t been spoken about”.
“We’ll go through a painful process of readjustment, and perhaps a more robust and honest conversation with each other,” he said. “Hopefully at the end, we’ll come out with more realistic expectations of each other – but before that happens, it will probably get worse.”