Universities reel as Australia bans entry to Chinese

Free deferrals offered and online offerings boosted as virus outbreak keeps students away

February 2, 2020
Chinese graduates
Source: iStock

Australia has joined the US in banning entry to all foreigners arriving from China, in a major blow to universities and other education providers.

Education minister Dan Tehan said the government had implemented the measure on 1 February to help stem the spread of coronavirus, on advice from the Australian Public Health Crisis Committee.

Mr Tehan said he would meet the board of Universities Australia on 3 February to discuss options “to minimise the impacts on Australia’s international education providers”, adding that “I appreciate the willingness of the university sector to work with the government to manage this public health emergency”.

Universities have been planning for this scenario over the past week, contemplating measures such as boosting their distance education offerings and allowing Chinese students to defer for a semester at no charge.

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said universities would seek to extend the offers of flexibility they had made to international students in recent days, including online study and deferred start date options.

She said universities would adhere “meticulously” to the advice of health and immigration authorities while managing the impact for students. “Our focus is on safeguarding the health and safety of everyone in university communities, and minimising any disruption to study, exams and assessment,” she said.

Mr Tehan is also expected to address a 3 February meeting of the Council for International Education’s Global Reputation Taskforce, which was established in January in response to the bushfire crisis and had its remit broadened to include the coronavirus outbreak.

International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood, who chairs the task force, said he had been assured that the decision to bar entry to Chinese visitors had not been taken lightly. He said Australian authorities had notified intending and continuing students of the ban through Weibo and other social media channels. Airports and airlines had also been advised.

The vagaries of the academic calendar mean that Australia could be hit harder by the coronavirus than other major international education destinations – including the US, which on 31 January announced that it would deny entry to foreign citizens who had travelled anywhere in China within the preceding fortnight.

Unlike northern hemisphere institutions, Australian universities break for around three months at the end of the year. Many foreign students return home for Chinese New Year celebrations, with the intention of returning to Australia to resume their studies around the beginning of March, when most local universities’ semesters commence.

It was not clear how long the travel ban will last, with Mr Morrison indicating that the measure would remain in place for at least the next fortnight.

Mr Honeywood said several vice-chancellors and a school system had contacted him to stress their willingness to provide students in China “with as many teaching and learning options as possible”. But it is unknown how such arrangements would be regarded in China, given its limited acceptance of distance education modes such as online teaching and video-conferencing.  

Mr Honeywood said other education sectors risked being even harder hit than universities – particularly schools, where classes have already resumed and more than half of full-fee-paying students are Chinese. “Independent schools and a number of government schools rely heavily on the Chinese student cohort to make up the numbers they have allocated for the year ahead,” he said.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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