Australia’s elite universities have dismissed claims campuses are “risky” for Chinese students, saying the higher education sector has become the latest “pawn” in a diplomatic row between Australia and China.
Yesterday afternoon, a statement from China’s Ministry of Education warned students to reconsider studying in Australia, alleging “racist incidents” amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson dismissed Beijing’s claims Australia was not safe for international students.
“When we have statements such as this, which are from our perspective very disappointing and unjustified, it raises some level of concern,” Ms Thomson said.
Just days after China urged its citizens not to travel to Australia, the Ministry of Education advised students on Tuesday to reconsider their options.
“During the period of pandemic, there are numerous discrimination cases against Asians in Australia,” the statement said.
“Please be cautious of choosing or going to study in Australia.”
No evidence provided by China, universities say
There have been reports of people being racially abused in Australia during the coronavirus pandemic, but the federal government has rejected Beijing’s suggestion that Australia is unsafe.
Ms Thompson said the Chinese embassy in Australia could not outline the incidents the Ministry of Education was referring to.
“We have asked the Chinese embassy are there incidents that they are aware of that we need to know about because if there are we need to be working together to resolve them,” she said.
“They have been unable to provide us with that advice because they advise us there are no cases.
“So it is concerning that, yet again, international education, and particularly with China, is yet again the pawn in a political game that is not of our making.”
The political game was made very public in April, when China’s ambassador to Australia first threatened an economic boycott as the Morrison government led a push for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
Just weeks later, tariffs were placed on Australian barley and some beef imports were blocked.
Over the weekend, the Chinese community was told not to book a holiday to Australia and Ms Thompson said the education sector had become the latest target.
“We are yet again, as a sector, caught up in a broader geopolitical context that is not of our making,” she said.
“Our job is to undertake research and teach students and this makes this relationship difficult to maintain.”
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan issued a statement to refute China’s claims.
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“Australia’s multicultural success is based on our respect for all Australians and visitors, including international students, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality,” he said.
“Our success at flattening the curve means we are one of the safest countries in the world for international students to be based in right now.
“We reject China’s assertion that Australia is an unsafe destination for international students.”
Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek also defended Australia’s record with international students.
“I have met dozens of senior leaders in our region who continue to speak fondly of their time studying in Australia and of the lifelong connections they made,” she said.
“Australia is one of the safest countries in the world for overseas students.”
Where to from here?
Australia’s university sector has already been hit hard by the border shutdown and concerns have been raised that China’s statement could see a reduction in students enrolling in Australian universities.
However International Education Association of Australia chief executive officer Phil Honeywood is hopeful the warning will not have a long-term effect.
Australia’s relationship with China appears increasingly rocky by the day following China’s alert to citizens urging them not to travel to Australia.
“For the time being the borders are clearly not open for the free flow of students and it will be some time off before this can happen,” he said.
“That provides our ministers with plenty of time in which to overcome some of these misconceptions and some of these issues that the Chinese government has raised concerns about.
“We can only argue that our education institutions have got long-standing, fantastic education.”
However that argument is hard to convey when Beijing will not take Australia’s calls.
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham reached out to his counterpart when news broke about the about beef and barley industries.
Asked this week if he had secured a meeting, the answer was still a firm no.
“Unfortunately, our requests for a discussion have, so far, been met negatively — that’s disappointing,” he told RN Breakfast.
“Australia is open to have difficult discussions on matters upon which we may disagree with other countries but will do so respectfully, thoughtfully, calmly and it’s unfortunate when other nations won’t respond or reciprocate in kind.”
There are more Chinese students at Australian universities than from any other overseas country.