Australia should not relax its China travel ban

The financial urge to allow Chinese students to begin the new university year must not trump public health concerns, says Salvatore Babones

February 25, 2020
A Chinese tourist wears a surgical mask
Source: iStock

When the Australian government imposed its China travel ban on 1 February, there were 7,000 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in China’s “ground zero”, Hubei province, with another 1,000 or so appearing every day.

Three weeks on, there are 64,000 confirmed cases in Hubei, with 2,500 deaths. Four other Chinese provinces have at least 1,000 cases each, with two more almost certain to tip over that mark this week.

South Korea has locked down its fourth-largest city, Daegu, in an effort to contain the first major coronavirus outbreak outside China. Italy, Japan, Singapore and Iran are also facing concerns. Airport-style symptom-based screening seems to be ineffective for detecting the disease.

Australia’s travel ban remains in place – for now. But at a time when other countries are ramping up travel restrictions and airlines are cancelling flights, the Australian government seems to be heading in the opposite direction.

The government’s expert health panel, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), has advised that, subject to certain caveats, “there is a case for government to consider…a temporary relaxation of the travel restrictions to allow entry to a larger number of tertiary students” starting next week. Only students from Hubei province are excepted.

Acting on the AHPPC’s advice, the government has already moved to admit Year 11 and 12 high school students from China. In what may come as a surprise to many, Australia’s state education departments openly advertise for fee-paying international students. Federal data suggest that there are about 5,300 international students in Victoria alone, with another 3,000 in New South Wales (of 12,000 nationally).

The AHPPC and the federal education minister, Dan Tehan, do not explain why Year 11 and 12 children should be the first Chinese visa holders allowed into Australia, ahead of university students, business travellers or even family members. In fact, the AHPPC’s advice on travel restrictions does not even mention non-student travellers from China.

Even more worrying is the “third country” route around the travel ban. The current rules allow Chinese students to enter the country if they first travel to another country for 14 days before coming to Australia.

There is no requirement that the students self-quarantine, test for the new coronavirus, or even take their temperatures before flying on to Australia. Enterprising Chinese travel agents have responded by offering two-week package holidays to Thailand targeted at students who are eager to resume their studies in Australia.

Some Australian institutions are implicitly encouraging this kind of circumvention. Western Sydney University has gone as far as to subsidise it.

But it is risky to reroute thousands of Chinese students through a poor country that is highly vulnerable to Chinese pressure to keep its borders open. The Australian government itself warns travellers to “exercise a high degree of caution” in Thailand. Israel, which is well known for its cautious approach, has banned travellers from Thailand completely.

Watching the Australian government crack open the door for Chinese students is like watching a slow-motion crash unfold. Everyone claims to be motivated by student welfare and concerns about public health. Rare are the acknowledgments of the moral hazards posed by the large dollar values at stake.

So there is little surprise that Saturday’s announcement allowing states to admit Year 11 and 12 students from China was jointly released by Tehan and his Victorian counterpart, James Merlino. The Victorian government earns A$18,163 (£9,238) a year, plus fees, from each of its international high school students. Chinese students probably generate close to A$100 million in tuition revenue in the state, including both government and non-government schools.

Similarly, last week it was revealed that the government has been working with universities and the airline Qantas to “make sure flights can quickly start operating again” when the travel ban is lifted, despite the fact that Chinese airlines have cancelled flights until at least June.

At a time when China’s own universities are closed and more than half its population is subject to internal travel restrictions, Australia is preparing for incoming Chinese students to be processed in batches of 1,000.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it has been estimated that 10 leading universities face losing A$1.2 billion in fees, and the education export sector as a whole is likely to suffer between A$2.8 billion and A$3.8 billion in lost revenues.

Three weeks ago, the Australian government moved aggressively to protect its people from coronavirus contagion, imposing one of the world’s first travel bans in response to the epidemic. More than 50 countries have since followed suit.

There is certainly a financial cost to maintaining the travel ban. That is nothing compared to the potential human cost of lifting it.

Salvatore Babones is an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies, an associate professor at the University of Sydney and author of the paper “Australia’s Export Exposure to China’s Coronavirus Epidemic”.

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