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Australia in race against UK, Canada, China to keep university students

Analysts suggest that if the slowdown in Chinese students and visitors is prolonged, it could cost Australia’s economy US$543 million over the next two years. Photo: Handout. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

CANBERRA, Sep 18, 2020, SMH. Universities overseas are chartering flights for thousands of Chinese international students to return to their studies, leaving Australia racing to keep up with its top competitors, Britain, the US and Canada, in its third biggest export industry, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

As Australian universities endured a horror-week of staff layoffs as border closures continued to cripple their budgets, China’s Ministry of Education has also begun plans to recognise degrees partially completed at overseas universities in its own institutions, eliminating the need for some international students to return to Australia.

The Ministry on Thursday told Chinese state media it would allow universities to accept students studying abroad to study in domestic universities “on the premise of ensuring education equity” while recognising foreign qualifications for partially completed degrees at local institutions.

More than 20 universities in the United Kingdom have joined together to charter flights for Chinese students to Britain. The UK had earlier declared it would treat Chinese students the same as those from the European Union for visa purposes. The flights through Hainan Airlines will ferry students from Chongqing to Manchester in time for the start of semester at the end of September.

Canada’s Sheridan College is offering students a refund if they are unhappy with their online tuition during the coronavirus pandemic in a bid to keep them on the books.

Phil Honeywood, chief executive of International Education Association of Australia, said there was a “real danger” Australia would lose substantial numbers of international students for semester one next year.

“If we don’t act soon then what started as a trickle of international students from key markets going to other countries will gather major momentum,” Mr Honeywood.

In the year to June, applications to study in Australia declined by 46 per cent from India, 60 percent from Nepal and 20 per cent from China compared to the previous year, data published by the Department of Home Affairs shows.

The developments threaten to prolong the pain for Australia’s $40 billion international student sector, as universities grapple with significant declines in revenue as a result of border closures.

Australian universities have also been unable to access the federal government’s $86 billion JobKeeper scheme, after the federal government tightened the restrictions on eligibility requirements for universities earlier this year.

The Australian National University in Canberra announced this week that 215 jobs would be cut, in addition to 250 voluntary redundancies. University of NSW also confirmed it would move to axe 256 full-time position, or 3.8 per cent of the university’s workforce, in a bid to find $39 million in savings.

RMIT University confirmed on Thursday it had accepted 355 voluntary redundancies, but said it could be forced to shed 250 more jobs before the year is out.

Meanwhile, the University of Sydney announced plans for voluntary redundancies as it forecast a $550 million hit to overall student revenue over the next four years.

In a document circulated to staff on Thursday, the university said its financial planning was built on several key assumptions, including that: “there will be no change to the current Chinese government policy on recognition of online study” and “Australia will retain its current competitive position for higher education vis-à-vis other countries”.

Education minister Dan Tehan has rejected a warning by China against its students studying at Australian universities due to racist incidents during the coronavirus pandemic.

The National Tertiary Education Union estimates more than 11,000 jobs have been cut to date by universities in response to the COVID-19 crisis, while peak body Universities Australia has forecast as many as 21,000 full time positions could go by early next year.

The announcements were followed by the revelation on Friday, first reported by the ABC, that New York University’s Sydney campus had qualified for JobKeeper payments.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese labelled the move a “scandal” and “rolled gold hypocrisy”.

“An American university worth billions of dollars qualifies for JobKeeper but Australian universities who have seen some 11,000 workers sacked were ineligible,” he said.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the situations faced by domestic universities and foreign universities with domestic campuses could not be compared.

“You’re talking about an apple and an orange,” Mr Frydenberg said on Friday. “Australian universities have been receiving support in terms of their domestic places. We have been there to provide that $18 billion of support. That’s not support that’s available foreign universities that may have a domestic campus. It’s a different situation.”

With Anna Patty

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