Mirabile dictu: Beijing drops hammer on international student trade

Australia’s booming pre-COVID international education industry was built on the back of Chinese students:

Australian international student exports

China was Australia’s most lucrative student market.

Now Beijing has dropped the hammer on Australia’s international student trade, freezing out our universities from setting up joint courses with Chinese universities which, before the pandemic, were a popular route for Chinese students to study in Australia:

No Australian university has been approved to establish such a course with a Chinese university since 2019, although universities in other countries – including the US, Britain, Canada, France, Germany and even New Zealand – have been given the go ahead to set up joint programs.

The courses, in which Chinese students do the first one or two years at a local university and then transfer overseas to complete the degree, are very popular and used by universities in many countries to build their student market in China.

Before Covid-19, more than 100 such courses, called “twinning programs”, were run by Australian universities in China with over 13,000 students enrolled…

This follows Beijing directly targeting Australian universities’ declining pedagogical standards in February:

  • The Chinese Ministry of Education (CME) complained that Aussie universities are delivering sub-standard courses in China JVs.
  • According to CME, universities have under-invested and failed to deliver quality Australian staff numbers.
  • An audit of the courses was forthcoming.
  • The Chinese courses are often part of package degrees that then bring Chinese kids to Australia.
  • As expected, the Australian universities denied the CME’s claims.

All of this was foreshadowed in 2019 in Salvatore Babones’ seminal paper, The China Student Boom and the Risks It Poses to Australian Universities. This showed that Australian universities hade become dangerously dependent on Chinese students, with concentrations that dwarf similar advanced nations:

Chinese students at Australian universities

Australian universities’ concentration of Chinese students was extreme.

As shown above, around one in nine students at Australian universities in 2017 were Chinese.

Another paper prepared for the Business Council and Asia Society warned that the excessive concentration of Chinese students at Australia’s universities had stifled free speech and debate, as well as compromised academic integrity:

“Far from serving to diversity the student cohort, the dependence on Chinese students has ­instituted a form of classroom monoculturalism in which ­encouraging students to embrace the values of academic integrity and free debate, and facilitating the development of core capabilities in critical thinking, effective English communication and cross-cultural competence, have become increasingly difficult,” Professor Shields writes…

The report recommends that universities “tighten academic and English-language standards for Chinese students”, requiring higher scores in the Chinese end-of-school exam, the Gao Kao, and put more emphasis on the International Baccalaureate as an entry examination…

A marked reduction in Chinese students studying at our universities would be a welcome development.

Excessive numbers of Chinese students at our universities perverted the very ethos of knowledge and learning via:

  • Repeated scandals whereby free speech was violently suppressed (e.g. the Drew Pavlou affair).
  • Universities aiding and abetting CCP persecution via intellectual property deals.
  • Academics being captured via “global talent” schemes that double their incomes.
  • Student unions being turned into Chinese lobbies and Confucious Institutes pumping propaganda into coursework.
  • Pedagogical standards being smashed in order to teach and pass sub-standard, non-English speakers.

These developments were disastrous for the long-run productivity and prosperity of Australia, which hinges upon quality education.

There were also wider negative externalities, such as the crush-loading of infrastructure in the major cities, the crushing of wage growth, and rising property prices and rents.

In short, having too many foreign students, especially Chinese, was a net negative for wider living standards (though that is no fault of the individuals).

In this regard, any action to curtail student numbers is another one of the delightful ironies of the great Chinese decoupling that will hopefully continue.

Unconventional Economist
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