China’s coronavirus outbreak has disrupted travel plans for millions of people — and could cost Australian universities millions of dollars. For students threatened by a deadly and fast-spreading virus, school may be the last thing on their minds. But university administrators are running scared.
But it’s not necessarily the virus they’re afraid of. More than 30,000 Chinese students were due to arrive at Sydney and UNSW this month, and another 8000 or so at UTS (none of the universities publish exact numbers), but the Australian government’s China travel ban seems to have put paid to that.
Chinese students account for more than 10% of total revenue at many Australian universities, and more than 20% at Sydney and UNSW, according to estimates published by the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) last August. Revenue losses on that scale could be catastrophic.
When the CIS sounded its warning about The China Student Boom and the Risks It Poses to Australian Universities, it seemed like the key triggers of a potential drop in Chinese enrolments might be economic or political. No one anticipated an epidemic. Yet here we are.
In 2019, Australian higher education institutions enrolled nearly half a million international students, more than 150,000 of them from the People’s Republic of China. There is no alternative to this Chinese pot of gold. Many Australian universities hope to switch to India, but the numbers just aren’t there: India has only about one-eighth as many middle-class families as China.
The immediate concerns raised by the coronavirus are of course health and safety. But looking long-term, the epidemic exposes the poor planning of Australian universities, which aggressively chased Chinese student numbers without taking proper account of the risks. The coronavirus epidemic has brought those risks into sharp focus. Unfortunately, it is now too late to mitigate them.
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