Australian universities have already been hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis.
But now, a new ploy by the Chinese government could see institutions across the country suffer another crippling blow.
Many Australian universities rely on international students as a major part of their revenue, with that crucial stream abruptly cut off by the pandemic and subsequent border closures.
The international education sector brought $37.5 billion to the Australian economy between 2019 and 2020, with China accounting for a staggering $10.5 billion of that figure.
The COVID-19 vaccine rollout has sparked hopes that international student levels could soon be on the rise, but unsettling reports coming out of China indicate Chinese students may not be among those rushing back to our universities.
Reports surfaced earlier this week that Chinese agencies were being encouraged by local authorities not to recommend Australia as an international study option to students, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
RELATED: China exposed in leaked WHO report
RELATED: China explodes at ‘racist’ Australia
These reports were initially only coming from smaller regional areas, but now university sources have confirmed the reports have spread to agencies in Beijing and Shanghai.
While there has been no official confirmation from the Chinese government that their students are being steered away from Australia, Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said there was “definitely something afoot”.
“Either agents are being told not to direct students here or they are being told not to mention Australia as an option for study. But we’ve had no official notification from anybody,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald.
Ms Thompson said it was a very concerning development for Australian universities.
This appears to be the latest in a series of attacks from China, with the country imposing a series of bans and crippling tariffs on Aussie exports, with beef, wine, barley coal and timber just some of the industries under fire.
And earlier this month Beijing took another swipe at the struggling university sector, with the country being accused of spreading “disinformation” in a bid to deter students from travelling Down Under.
China’s Ministry of Education reportedly told students to make a “full risk assessment” about going to Australia following reports of racism, anti-Chinese attacks and concerns about COVID-19.
Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge hit back at the claims saying Australia was one of the safest and most welcoming destinations for international students.
“I reject China’s assertions it is unsafe to visit or study in Australia – this is disinformation,” he said.
“Australia holds itself to a far higher standard than most other nations – we don‘t tolerate racism, and we certainly don’t tolerate violence.”
It comes after Chinese state-owned media, The Global Times, reported that a “series of vicious attacks on Chinese students” had occurred in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra on three consecutive days in January.
The outlet claimed the incidents posed a “serious threat” to the personal safety of Chinese students who choose to study in Australia.
While the recent attacks from China are a concern, it hasn’t stopped Australian universities already starting to see a rise in international students.
Earlier this month NCA NewsWire revealed more than 1000 international students had quietly been allowed to “jump the queue” ahead of 40,000 stranded Aussies waiting to come home.
People seeking an exemption to the travel ban must provide evidence of a “compelling case” and meet exemption categories, which includes students in their final two years of study of a medical, dental, nursing or allied health profession university degree.
Those students must also have a confirmed placement at an Australian hospital or medical practice that starts within the next two months.
Ms Thompson said universities within the Group of Eight had provided supporting evidence for students that fitted the exemption criteria.
She said rural, regional and remote communities relied heavily on overseas student graduates from Australian medical schools.
“If medical students can’t get back into the country, then this will impact the pipeline of new doctors into the system over the next few years,” Ms Thomson said.
“There will be a shortfall.”