In early February, the Chinese government lobbed a shot across the bow of Australia’s higher education sector, warning students they may not necessarily be safe in the lucky country.
The announcement was the second such strike against Australian universities since December, with education exports, worth around $31 billion a year to the national economy, getting caught up in increasing geopolitical tension between the two countries.
Political analysts suggest Beijing is railing against Australian education to show its displeasure with the nation’s foreign policy, particularly Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s strident rhetoric over supposed foreign interference and criticism of China’s expansion in the South China Sea.
In that context, repeated warnings from the Chinese government have the potential to slow the significant momentum that’s built in Australian education exports in recent years.
China is the top source for international students in Australia, with the near 180,000-Chinese nationals enrolled in Australian courses accounting for 29.6 per cent of all foreigners studying in the country, according to statistics from the Department of Education and Training.
In 2016, data from Sogou Analytics showed Australian universities had overtaken their counterparts in the United Kingdom in total online search volume, becoming the second highest searched destination behind the US.
As well as being the most numerous, Chinese students are also the biggest spenders, accounting for around $9 billion of the total spending of international scholars.
For Western Australian universities, the agitations of the Chinese government loom as another challenge for a sector that’s lagging other states in attracting Chinese students.
Of the near 180,000 Chinese enrolments across the country, just 7,941 decided to study in WA.
The state government is keen to address that situation, launching a comprehensive campaign last year to boost the numbers of Chinese students at WA universities.
Part of that campaign was Premier Mark McGowan’s first international delegation – an education and tourism-focused trip to China in November that coincided with new digital marketing campaigns across Chinese social media channels, including the ubiquitous WeChat.
On the flipside, the state government’s changes to the Regional Sponsored Migration Scheme, which effectively removed a pathway to permanent residency for international students, do not appear to mesh with those objectives.
In December, Mr McGowan told Australia China Business Review the issue of permanent residency had been raised with him, but the government had not yet considered making any changes.
“I take the view that if you’re coming here to study, it should be about coming to study – it’s not a tricky way to migration, it’s about study,” Mr McGowan said.
“We should be able to stand on our own two feet and promote our universities and the like without having to come up with a way of subverting the immigration system.
“But I’m more than happy, particularly in the case of PhDs and the like, to take a look at that issue.”
University of Western Australia vice chancellor Dawn Freshwater said all the state’s tertiary institutions had been working with the government to understand the impact of those changes.
“Permanent residency is important for the students when they’re thinking about their place of study,” Ms Freshwater told Australia China Business Review.
“What we have to do is understand to what extent (the changes) are a threat, particularly to this sector.
“That’s why it’s important for us to work with the government to see if there have been any severe unintended consequences of that policy when it was put in place.
With the migration challenge in place, Ms Freshwater said it was crucially important the nascent stages of any recovery in WA’s international education exports were not derailed by geopolitical debates.
“It’s always frustrating when messages are construed in particular ways in the media in order to address particular agendas, but I think for us, we are a trusted anchor sector in society,” Ms Freshwater said.
“I take the experience of our students, the safety of our students and the staff very seriously, and that is in the context of everything that any university campus faces in a global climate.
“These are very challenging times for any university, if you think about what’s happening in North America in school campuses then we have to take very seriously that agenda and make sure that we’re providing the best environment to learn in while we’re mindful of some of those global challenges.”
Ms Freshwater said one of the key challenges for the WA tertiary education sector was for all leaders to get on the same page and provide a clear and consistent message to allow prospective students to make an informed decision.
And a key part of that message was to highlight the natural attributes of Perth being a safe place to study and an enjoyable place to live.
“We see university as the home for an international student, so making sure that when we talk about safety, this is not just about safety and security, this is about the well-being of students as they engage in their study abroad experience,” Ms Freshwater said.
“We’re focusing on providing them with a whole range of opportunities to access support, support for their studies and support for them to engage, learn and expand themselves in different ways and to think about the opportunities that they have for cultural diversity.
“And we’re focusing on the academic freedom aspect of this. As universities we are very clear that we provide an environment for academic freedom and for critical thinking to take place, it’s a key component of what we do, and we are continuing to drive that message home.”
Ms Freshwater said UWA had a multi-faceted strategy in place to attract more international students, including a range of research agreements, articulation agreements and memorandums of cooperation with a range of Chinese universities.
One of the most recent programs unveiled by UWA is a partnership with Zhejiang University, a five-year program that gives students the opportunity to obtain a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences from UWA and a degree in clinical medicine from Zhejiang.
“We have quite a strong eco-system, here and in China, in a strategic way so that we’re not scattered across a whole range of universities or scattered across a whole range of disciplines – we focus on those areas that are of strength and excellence for ourselves,” Ms Freshwater said.
“But there are some significant challenges for us, one of those is that Perth is not necessarily as well known in Australia or globally in terms of its international programs for its Chinese students.
“If you went to China, they would of course think about Sydney and Melbourne as destinations of choice.
“What we were doing last year was talking up Perth as a study destination and thinking about its role in tourism also for the families of these students and really working hard to make sure that the universities and the sectors that we’re working with understand the benefits of coming to Perth as a study destination.
“It is about the quality of the university and the relevance of the programs, but it’s much bigger than that, it’s also about safety, security, opportunities for engaging with big corporates and the industry partners we have.”
Curtin University vice chancellor Deborah Terry said her university’s China attraction strategy operated on two levels – one focused on individual students, the other on engaging at a more macro level in China.
Ms Terry said Curtin considered itself a global university, with campuses in Malaysia, Singapore, Dubai and a major presence in Mauritius, as well as a range of partnerships with universities and other learning institutes in China.
Curtin is also embarking on a major development program designed to make the campus more accessible to international students, with more than 1,000 student beds to be built on campus by 2021, alongside short-term hotel accommodation.
“When we are working to create those new accommodation opportunities, it's really around the kinds of accommodation that our students from countries like China are seeking – that’s very important,” Ms Terry said.
At the same time, China is seeking to boost its innovation and high-tech industries, with the 19th National Congress committing more than $US300 billion ($383 billion) to those sectors over the next five years.
Ms Terry said the Greater Curtin plan was designed to establish the university as an innovation hub and was a key plank of its China strategy.
“When I think about how we are engaging with China, it’s more than a market, a regional centre and powerhouse for us,” Ms Terry said.
“For us, China is critically important in terms of not only students but research links and research partnerships.
“The fact that our relationship is at both levels it’s very important. When the premier led the delegation late last year a lot of it was about the research partnerships and the linkages, which are critically important in the broad innovation space.
“Our strengths fit extremely well with China, which is where getting that clear picture of what’s important about WA and making sure we get that across is important. Curtin has a very strong focus on building sustainable cities – that is critically important to China into the future.
“Clean energy, the broad mega-projects, infrastructure, all critically important.
“They are major strengths in Australia – technology-enabled major resources companies, the use of robotics and technology in those environments, Australia is good at that, we’ve been a leader, and those things are highly important in the Chinese context as well.”
At Edith Cowan University, deputy vice chancellor international Simon Ridings said one of the biggest challenges was getting the university’s message across in China.
Mr Ridings said ECU’s main China strategy was a research-led engagement, which flowed into successful recruitment as a result.
He said ECU had focused on partnerships with high-profile research institutions and government agencies in China to boost the university’s student recruitment at the PhD level.
“Because China is a big place and there are lots of other western universities there, you need to be really choosy in identifying which research areas you promote for the university,” Mr Ridings said.
“There is no point in going and saying that we’re high-profile in 10 to 15 different things, you need to choose two or three things where you really are authentically outstanding, and then build partnerships in China with other organisations that recognise you to be excellent in those things.
“We’ve had a very strong focus on medical science in China, because medical science really is an area where ECU is authentically outstanding.
“What that’s enabled us to do is put in place joint programs with several of the largest medical universities in China, and that’s enabled us to be recognised by the China Scholarship Council as having extremely high-profile partners in China.
“We actually have PhD students who are known to be some of the best and brightest students in China and you couldn’t possibly get a better advertisement for ECU more broadly than people seeing those students come to us.
“People are seeing that we have tie-ups with some of the largest medical universities in the world and that the China Scholarship Council pays for some of their elite students to come and do their PhDs here, it doesn’t just raise your brand, but it associates your brand with science and scholarships and research and some of the most important higher education institutions in the country.”
At a state level, Mr Ridings also said the amenity of Perth as a destination was something that ECU, in collaboration with WA’s five other universities, would continue to promote.
“If you’re a family and your child is going overseas to study, of course you want the destination to be clean, safe, secure, multicultural, you want transport and accommodation to be easy to find and reliable,
“And you want to know that the community that your child is going to is accepting and glad to have them there.
“The other thing which sometimes gets forgotten when we talk about Perth and people see recruitment here through the lens of competition with other destinations, being in the same time zone as a very large part of our core country markets is very useful.
“We sometimes forget in WA that we really are much closer to a lot of East Asia than the rest of the country is.”