Students from overseas are pouring back into Australia

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TAT first an international student, from China, enrolled at the University of Sydney a century ago. Now its sandstone buildings are immersed in foreign languages: almost half of the university’s students are from abroad. “For Asian children, we value the ratings a lot,” said one of his Chinese students, who asked not to be named. Australian universities perform well in them; The University of Sydney is one of nine in the world’s top 100 institutions. Australia also has better weather than Britain or Canada, and less gun crime than America. When the student registered in 2015, it “looked like one of the friendliest countries in the Western world. “

Over the past two decades the number of international students in Australia has almost quadrupled, to 440,000 in 2019. Its universities are now attracting more foreign talent than those of any country except America and Britain. Education is Australia’s fourth largest export, worth about 3% of GDP. This has made their universities dependent on the higher fees paid by foreigners – a concern when Australia closed its borders in 2020 and again later that year when a trade war erupted with China, which provides about a third of the settlers. But most of the universities have managed these shocks quite easily. And this year foreign students have returned in droves, with 425,000 now in Australia.

The level of trade had little effect on the universities. While they were dragging curbs on Australia’s exports from wine to coal, China did not prevent its citizens from attending the country’s universities. When the pandemic hit, Chinese students were also more willing than others to stick to online learning, notes Peter Varghese, chancellor of the University of Queensland. “One of the ironies was that the universities that were most affected financially were the ones that had the highest number of Chinese students,” he says. Mark Scott, vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, agrees: “A point of vulnerability emerged as a strength.”

Public investment in tertiary education in Australia is among the lowest in the OECD. This makes the universities particularly dependent on the income provided by foreign students, including A$41bn ($27bn) in fees and other costs a year to the September. There is also value in the “enduring diplomatic advantage of building constructive relationships” with some of the world’s most enlightened citizens, Professor Scott said.

But there is a downside. Some universities have been accused of suppressing criticism of China. Chinese student vandals are allegedly prowling campuses and terrorizing classmates. In 2019 scuffles broke out in several universities between Chinese nationalists and pro-democracy activists. Universities have been subjected to a “sustained campaign of intimidation, harassment, censorship and intelligence gathering”, which Conservative senator James MacPherson slammed last year.

Partly as a result, the universities are becoming a little less dependent on China. Scandals about foreign interference were a wake-up call, says Rory Medcalf of the Australian National University. Vice-chancellors are now looking for new markets. The University of Sydney takes the highest numbers from Malaysia and Vietnam. Since 2018 the number of Indians studying under has increased by a third. Chinese students now represent 33% of the foreign group, down from a peak of 38%.

At the same time ongoing geopolitical tensions are leading to increased scrutiny of research and university partnerships. Anti-foreign laws introduced by the former Conservative government require universities to report “arrangements” with “foreign entities” to security agencies. When, in 2019, Monash University signed a partnership with the state-owned China Commercial Aviation Company to develop aviation technology, there was an uproar. A parliamentary inquiry last year called for it to be suspended, as there could be military implications at work.

A more heated debate about security on the campuses is starting. Through AUCUS, trilateral security agreement, America and Britain share nuclear propulsion technology with Australia. The agreement will also lead to collaboration on emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Australian officials say this will make the country’s universities more targets for espionage. The Labor government led by Anthony Albanese has drafted legislation that would make it illegal for academics to share sensitive research with any foreigner, except Americans and Britons, without the government’s permission. Universities fear that their academic freedom will be restricted. However, for the moment, these steps seem rather small given how open they are.

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