China’s ministry of education said in a statement on Tuesday that students preparing to study abroad should do a “good risk assessment” and “exercise caution” in choosing to go to or return to Australia for study. “During the pandemic, Australia has seen multiple incidents of discrimination targeting those of Asian descent.”
The warning comes as ties between China and Australia have reached their lowest point in years. Australia led calls for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak, which was first detected in China in December before spreading to the rest of the world.
In response to Australia’s push for an investigation, China had warned its citizens could boycott of Australian goods and services. China’s culture and tourism ministry issued a travel alert on Friday, warning Chinese travellers from going to Australia where they might be the target of racially motivated attacks, caused by anger over the pandemic.
Chinese experts have accused Australia of “smearing China” over the pandemic and thus encouraging discriminatory attitudes. “The Australian side should recognise the real problem rather than hiding its head in the sand,” Chen Hong, director of the Australian Studies Centre at East China Normal University in Shanghai told the state-run Global Times.
Australia has also criticised Beijing’s decision to force controversial national security laws on Hong Kong. China has placed tariffs on Australian barley as well as blocked imports of Australian beef, moves that Beijing has said are not related to Australia’s push for an inquiry.
Tuesday’s warning from China’s education ministry will intensify the anxiety of Australian universities. The university sector has released modelling claiming it will lose up to $16bn by 2023 due to the impact of Covid-19.
Universities are struggling because of a series of changes, including border closures impacting their international enrolments, the Morrison government’s decision to exclude all public universities from the jobkeeper wage subsidy and the collapse of a deal with the National Tertiary Education Union to accept pay cuts in return for saving up to 12,000 jobs.
Overseas students make a significant contribution to the viability of many Australian universities. An analysis by two Melbourne University academics found that seven Australian universities, including La Trobe University, are at “high financial risk” and could face a cash crisis as a result of the downturn in revenue from international students.
The other universities on the high risk list are Monash, RMIT, University of Technology Sydney and Central Queensland, Southern Cross and Canberra universities. The report found the institutions had relatively slim cash reserves to weather a major downturn in revenue due to a falloff in international students. Some universities derive up to 36% of their revenues from international students.
The modelling undertaken by Universities Australia assumed that international student numbers would recover to their pre-pandemic numbers by 2022. Based on a 20% drop in international enrolments this year, the study estimated a $3.3bn drop in revenue, rising to a $4.3bn loss with a further 20% drop in 2021.
The University of NSW, which has one of the largest exposures to international students, has estimated its losses at up to $600m in 2020 (from a budget of $2bn), with possible losses of $450m in 2021 and again in 2022.
The trade minister, Simon Birmingham, has rejected China’s warnings to its citizens not to travel to Australia due to a “significant” increase in racist attacks since the coronavirus outbreak.
Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles, said on Sunday Australia was “clearly not free from the issue of racism, and I’m sure that there are Chinese Australians who have been on the receiving end of that”.
“But I think the way in which that statement is framed [by the foreign ministry] does not accurately describe where Australia is at”.
Anti-Discrimination New South Wales reported it had received an increase in inquiries “related to the pandemic and racism against people of Asian backgrounds” between January and April 2020 and a community database that tracks anti-Asian racism has received 380 reports in two months – the equivalent of 47 a week.