The Australian university sector finds itself in an unprecedented crisis. In a matter of days, the novel coronavirus has become a global public health emergency with far-reaching implications for the sector.
With the Australian government’s decisive travel restrictions, coupled with Britain and Canada still offering free passage, some in the sector have started to worry that affected Chinese students will go elsewhere, wreaking financial havoc on the profit and loss statements of almost all Australian universities.
Perhaps that reveals how tenuously we perceive our relationship with these students.
In reality, it would take much more to send them running into the arms of another study destination. It is true that, in any given year, international education is indeed a competitive zero-sum game. In most circumstances, one country’s loss is another’s gain. This is what transpired during the Australian downturn in 2009-10 when Britain picked up most of the 15,000 Indian students who decided to study elsewhere.
It was then Britain’s turn to shoot itself in the foot when it removed post-study work visas, playing substantially to Australia’s and Canada’s advantage in recent years. A global pandemic, however, makes all destinations — at least in the first instance — equally uncertain.
Studying abroad is the culmination of a long period of searching and debating, planning and saving, worrying and dreaming. Speaking from my experience, leaving home to study abroad is a step of faith and the fulfilment of many hopes.
Short-term travel restrictions are not likely to be a distinguishing factor, unless this runs much longer or is more poorly handled in Australia than elsewhere.
Our starting assumptions should be of personal attachment and the high likelihood our Chinese students will have a strong preference to realise their existing plans as much and as soon as possible. After having chosen Australia, changing your life plans to then study in another country is going to be a last resort for many.
In the uncertain and tumultuous global outlook, many Chinese students will likely defer a semester and stay at home.
Alternative study destinations may be more attractive for students with low sunk costs and weak links to Australia, and who perceive for whatever reason that Australia is a markedly less desirable destination following the 2019-nCoV outbreak. It is worth noting that strong border controls and a low infection rate may reinforce Australia’s proposition as a safer and more secure destination in times of global upheaval.
The opportunity presents then for Australian universities to show their fidelity in return, focusing their efforts on helping our Chinese international students realise their study plans for this year.
Notwithstanding the potential deficits that will likely eventuate in the years to come as a result of the novel coronavirus, it is not the time to be thrifty in our efforts to provide aid and relief.
It would be shortsighted and foolhardy to focus obsessively on the financial challenges and budget constraints, to focus on the transaction at the expense of the relationship.
Now is the time to be generous in our support — perhaps extravagantly so. In the same way that we have rallied around our regional communities, friends and families devastated by the ongoing bushfires, we have an opportunity to demonstrate care and solidarity with the Chinese student community in Australia and abroad.
Thoughtfulness, consultation and creativity will be required to determine what will truly make a difference. Early ideas include student case management, online and offshore learning and teaching, disruptions to academic calendars, care packages, and mental health and counselling programs.
There is still a small window for good news. If the virus is contained, travel restrictions lifted and flights restored, many Chinese students slated to enrol in semester one may yet have the opportunity to begin classes in time to start the year with a degree of normalcy. Flexibility on the part of institutions, regulatory agencies and the government will widen that window.
This article was first published in The Australian on 12 February 2020.
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