“We can’t wait to welcome them back”

Sydney University Vice-Chancellor, Dr. Michael Spence says return of international students vital not just for campuses but the broader community

15 June 2020 | Marcus Reubenstein

After months of lobbying from state governments, and the higher education sector, there’s renewed hope for Australia’s universities with a federal government announcement that overseas students could start returning as early as next month.

Last Friday’s announcement was very short on detail, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison indicating the approval process needs the agreement of multiple state and federal bodies, as well as cooperation with higher education institutions.

The lifeline thrown to students comes ten weeks after Morrison told international students there was no COVID-19 support for them and it was time “to make your way home.”

Vice Chancellor of Sydney University, Dr. Michael Spence says there’s a home for international students on Australia’s oldest campus, “Especially for our international students, the on campus experience is a key part of why they want to study in Sydney and we can’t wait to welcome them back as soon as we are able to.

“We are optimistic about the future. We have confidence in our higher education sector and believe Australia will remain an attractive destination for students from overseas.”

A safe environment Chinese students

The return of Chinese students, who make up 27% of Australian international enrolments in higher education, is facing headwinds.

China’s Ministry of Education has issued an alert to students considering study in Australia, due to increased levels of COVID-19 anti-Asian racism. Great sections of the Australian media speculated that warning, and a similar alert to Chinese tourists, was prompted by Australia’s unilateral call for a China COVID-19 investigation.

However, foreign policy observers point to recent moves which amounted to thinly veiled affronts against China. Most notably, the government making a major announcement of the upgrading of “national security” threat assessments for foreign investments by state owned enterprises.

One senior financial market observer characterised it as an announcement with “no concern for our national interest.” Supporting that sentiment is the new foreign investment measures were put in place as Chinese investment in Australia is dramatically falling – by 62% in the last twelve months alone. 

There have undoubtedly been a great number of documented instances of racism against Chinese-Australians since COVID-19. In addressing the issue of China’s racism warning, Australia’s former Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane told ABC television that China’s motives may have been political but undoubtedly racism COVID-19-related racism exists and it has not been fully addressed.

A number of international students, Chinese community groups and the university sector are aligned in saying Australia is generally a safe place to study. The consensus is well and truly on the side of the sector being caught up in a diplomatic stoush, rather than presenting major risks to students.

The human component of education exports

The COVID-19 political debate has certainly hit Australian universities, but one figure consistently overlooked is that higher education directly employs three times as many Australians as, the nation’s biggest export earners, mining and resources

Of Australia’s top ten exports, more Australians are employed in higher education than eight out of the other ten industries combined. Aside from tourism, it is the only other top export which brings people to our shores.

That poses a question, are international students being unfairly valued as an economic commodity, when they provide Australia with an important human resource? “Absolutely,” says Dr. Spence.

“International students make a huge contribution to the rich diversity of our educational experience.”

Dr. Michael Spence, Sydney University Vice-Chancellor

“In order to be world class, I strongly believe that we have to draw talented staff and students from around the globe.”

An industry re-think

Many industries have been forced to re-think the way they do business in the COVID-19 world. Says Dr. Spence, Sydney University is no different. “The crisis meant we had to rapidly try new things in the online education space and we have seen some exciting results. We’ve enhanced our digital literacy and are discovering new ways of delivering high-quality education.”

One initiative is running classes with virtual reality technology that gives students an immersive experience. He also points to the Research and Development capacity of the university as a sign of flexibility in meeting immediate challenges.

“Just recently”, he says, “a multidisciplinary team of our academics and students, including international students, produced a simple, low cost ventilator using modern design tools and 3-D printing in just a matter of weeks.”

Welcoming international students back, Dr. Michael Spence, Sydney University Vice Chancellor (supplied)

Headline numbers require greater scrutiny

Higher education critics point to an overreliance of Australian universities on income from foreign students. These arguments ignore the fact that foreign student income does, to a considerable degree, subsidise the education of Australian students.

While international enrolments account for 24% of the student population, they contribute 40% of total student fees.

Sydney University has one of the highest proportions, generating around 58% of its student revenue from international students. But, says Dr. Spence, that is not a sign of a broken business model.

“Responsible financial planning has always been a priority for us, and Australian universities have been very successful in finding ways to generate our own income as government funding has reduced significantly over time.

“For us, that’s primarily been through the commercialisation of our research, the generosity of our donors and our international student cohort that we’ve been working hard to diversify.”

Over the past three decades the level of government contribution to the operating costs of Australia’s universities has halved from 80 percent to just 40 percent.

In total, international students bring around $40 billion into Australia’s economy and indirectly support many other industries. Faced by COVID-19 economic disruptions and travel restrictions, Universities Australia estimates revenue across Australia’s universities will drop by up to $4.8 billion in 2020 and could total $16 billion by 2023.

Economy wide contribution

Politicians and the media boast of the economic benefits that flow form major sporting events in order to justify hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded grants for one off sporting events. Yet there’s hardly mention of the flow benefits of international students.

Says Dr. Spence, “Our contribution to the broader economy is undeniable. Recent independent economic analysis shows that last year our University alone contributed $5.6 billion to the national economy and supported over 35,600 jobs including in retail, construction, tourism, real estate and hospitality.”

While Chinese students make up one-quarter of the total international student population, they represent 38% of international enrolments across universities, on the face of it the number looks high.

Given more than 20% of the world’s population is Chinese, and Australia is located in the Asian region, there’s an argument to say those figures aren’t overblown.

As with many industries there is no quick fix to the COVID-19 challenge. The fact is Australia faces a great shortfall in export revenue and the loss of Chinese students is certain to create more short-term problems without any guarantee of long-term solutions. 

That’s a message Dr. Spence is keen to promote, “I hope what we will see across the country is a renewed appreciation of our international students and their contribution.

“They are valued and important members of our community and we benefit from their faith in our education offering in a range of ways.”