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Battles over Education: Australia, China and Unsafe Universities

Entering a university should be, to some degree, unsafe. Away from the gazing eyes of parents, institutional structures for the child, the entrant faces, or at least should face, the prospect of something truly daunting: To think, to entertain discomfort, to see old ideas and presumptions die gloriously in the inferno of learning. None of this is easy, but all of it should be encouraged.

The modern university is, however, an infantilizing coddle of an experience, a managerial pit-heap, and a spreadsheet-directed mire of gobbledygook. It seeks cash. It has “alignments” with industries. It embraces “Five Year Plans” which would warm the boilersuit dictators of old. It hires the legions of public relations as a matter of course. All this serves to encourage an absence of thought, the dolling out of degrees for purchase, and a range of other additions that make the modern university susceptible to manipulation.

With all this in mind, the China-Australia “education wars” (dare one even go that far?) serve to show that learning is the last thing that matters in the debate. Relations between Beijing and Canberra have cooled. Australia’s education sector, having buried itself so deeply in its reliance on Chinese students, is bleeding. Jobs are for the chop. And the insistence by the Morrison government in taking the lead on the China containment agenda, from limiting the reach of Huawei to the issue of an inquiry into the origins and handling of the novel coronavirus, has served to irritate and estrange.

Retaliation has been forthcoming. A trade war in all but declaration has broken out, a surely devastating thing for “the world’s most China-dependent economy”. Beijing has imposed tariffs on Australian barley. Beef exports from four Australian abattoirs banned. Now, it is the turn of Australian universities and the Chinese student market.

China’s Education Bureau has decided to change its tune on the Australian education market, warning students that resuming classes in July might endanger them. Students should “conduct a good risk assessment and be cautious about choosing to go to Australia or to return to Australia to study.” It is also all tease and prodding, reversing the entire narrative on COVID-19. If you do go to Australia, you might be at risk of the pandemic.

This warning also chimed with one that had been issued by the Chinese Ministry of Culture and Tourism on June 6. “Due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial discrimination and violence against Chinese and Asian people in Australia have seen a significant increase.”

Australia’s Education Minister Dan Tehan, a truly rough, unwashed piece to behold, made sure to bring out the pom-poms for the sector he is meant to be representing in a statement to the ABC. “Australia is a popular destination for international students because we are a successful, multicultural society that welcomes international students and provides a world-class education.” All of these platitudes underscore the one thing Tehan and Australian university Vice-Chancellors understand: cash.

As for the issue of pandemic safety, Tehan reminded any critics that Australia has been fairly credible when it comes to stifling the COVID-19 spread. (Cue the self-flattery, back-patting, congratulations.) “Our success at flattening the [coronavirus] curve means we are one of the safest countries in the world for international students to be based in right now.” Give the man an advertising position.

Students have found themselves in a geopolitical sandwich, and an unpleasant one it is too. Chinese students have been telling the ABC that the issue is one of indignation between political representatives rather than the “people”, who have more important things to do, such as tolerate the increasingly commercialised tertiary sector. One Mr Zhen, who is studying a Masters degree in biomedicine at the University of Adelaide, was keen to stay apolitical. The June 6 travel warning had been unnecessary; the further warning for returning students had “gone too far”. Another University of Adelaide student, postdoctoral candidate Primo Pan, conceded to enduring a few instances of racism during the pandemic, though had no desire to throw in the towel. “There was an increase in racism targeting Chinese people in Australia, but it’s still a safe place where your personal security is not threatened.”

Australian universities have their palace defenders. He-Ling Shi of Monash University, knowing which side his bread is buttered on, insists that “Australian universities have taken various measures and tried to help overseas students… and also facilitated their studies in Australia.”

This is all too rosy, and even disingenuous. International students have been excluded from protective income measures that would have made retaining Australia as a destination viable. The approach in terms of assistance packages has been piecemeal, shoddy and deeply bureaucratic. Universities still demand top dollar from their students, and a generous, collective waiver of fees has not been embraced. Such students are currency, and the contempt towards them shows.

The Chinese Education Bureau is correct, but in a way quite different to its assumption. Students are being harmed, but not in the way they might realise. They are certainly not being made to feel unsafe through rigorous academic standards of the sort Tehan boasts about. Australian universities have adjusted admission standards and tailored courses that are less challenging in order to increase and retain foreign students. Those exposing this farce have been attacked. The function of learning has been replaced by the nature of process and delivery.

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  1. Sally

    If China proceeds down this road of increasing aggression towards Australia, perhaps it is time to re-consider the ridiculous arrangement the LNP currently has with China when it decided to lease our ports in Darwin to an increasingly aggressive foreign power that could now provide a security risk. Australia and other nations have EVERY right to criticise the dangerous and unhealthy practise of WET MARKETS in Wuhan (and other areas of China) which W.H.O. have traced as being the cause of the outbreak of the current pandemic, Covid-19 as well as previous outbreaks of Ebola, Bird Flu and SARS. China may not like “losing face” because of the worldwide criticism of cruel wet markets but it is what it is! China needs to stop being “precious” on this issue, “man up” and face the responsibility they have in consistently spreading a variety of pandemics due to unhygienic practises that continue in relation to the slaughter of animals (especially virus-carrying bats) in close proximity to other birdlife and animals in unsavoury and cruel wet markets. China has no right in bullying and harassing other nations at this time! Quite frankly, if it wasn’t for the fact that western nations such as Australia, the USA, Britain (and other European nations) struck up trading deals with China, importing just about everything we wear and use, China wouldn’t be the wealthy (and powerful) country it is today.

  2. Matters Not

    A great article. (Meaning I agree with what’s written.)


    Australia’s Education Minister Dan Tehan, a truly rough, unwashed piece to behold.

    Dan Tehan is the work experience kid who went to the wrong room in the wrong building in the wrong suburb at the wrong time. Meant to be learning to deliver telegrams on a red PMG bicycle with training wheels. A figure of fun.

  3. New England Cocky

    BK, an interesting description of university administrations, but in my experience it is incomplete. Once a university was administered by a VC, a senior university secretary (usually referred to as DoG), and a VC Personal Assistant doing the necessary typing and coffee making.

    Since the Dawkins “Reforms”, staff numbers in university administrations have exploded by attracting senior academics who are bored with their speciality studies and wish to get on the cash cow of administrative perks created by the unregulated Dawkins “Reforms” as an Acting Temporary Pro-Vice Something-or-Other, insert a suitable title to reflect the status of the incumbent and obfuscate the huge salary increase accompanying the promotion into “Administration”. Consequently, the percentage of university revenue being expended upon “Administration” has snow-balled to as much as 60% of total university annual revenue, with most of that expenditure being for the too many Academic drop-outs.

    The present COVID-19 staff redundancies are nearly all temporary and casual staff with the “Administration” maintaining their usual salary packages as “they struggle to bring the good ship University into the New Reality port”. But slashing junior academic, temporary and casual staff is a poor knee-jerk reaction because it is precisely those persons who are carrying the heavy academic teaching load.

    Should the new Administrators return to their teaching in their previous academic departments? Never!! Perish the thought!! Administration, once the sinecure of the academically incompetent, has become the real career path ambitious academics wishing to overcome the lack of R&D funding since Little Johnnie Howard gifted US researchers $1 BILLION to contract out Australian research to our own Australian researchers, now engage in paper shuffling exercises rather than innovative R&D projects. Truly the Liarbral Nazional$ are academic philistines who think seeing the end of your nose means looking into the future.

  4. Alc

    It’s the Minister for Ejoocation thank you all.

  5. Andrew Smith

    Good article. Originally fee paying international students flowed on from the Colombo Plan in the mid late ’80s, university income (and govt. support) passing the sweet demographic spot of local student numbers, while subsidising the latter, with baby boomers and older being catered to by neo liberal political policies of user pays and lower taxes, plus more services for older generations.

    Originally fee paying university student cohorts were dominated by Chinese Malaysians, Singaporeans and Hong Kongers with more dependence upon PRC Chinese in last couple of decades, especially higher tier universities. For several years now it has been expected that PRC numbers would soften due to more in country provision by local and/or international universities, including Australia; with more focus upon the sub-continent for recruitment and growth.

    In a perfect world there would be more diversity in university student cohorts from a larger pool with lower fees allowing better quality students to study in Australia (versus, the less polite description of many, ‘dumb middle class’ with funds).

    Conversely, there is nothing stopping Australian students studying offshore (even multiple locations) for similar or higher quality, but lower fees, some cases free (e.g. Berlin Free University but very competitive entry). However, a high quality study experience internationally can be stymied upon return if same degrees are not recognised and accredited as equal to an Australian degree, e.g. allowing automatic or simpler professional body acceptance.

  6. New England Cocky

    @Andrew Smith: The Columbo Plan was operating during the 60s when Australian university students either paid their own way or got some form of government scholarship/cadetship that covered essential fees. There are many stories of now famous (or notorious) persons who worked their way through university while doing various assorted jobs to support themselves financially.

    I question your assertion without proof that many overseas university qualifications are equal too, or better than, the equivalent Australian qualifications. This applies particularly to too many US post-graduate qualifications.

    However, too many “professional associations” (read middle class unions) refuse to recognise too many foreign university qualifications to protect the local practitioners. This has occurred for over 50 years costing Australia the opportunity to get fresh professional input into the professions.

    Perhaps the solution is for those foreign courses to be properly and objectively evaluated before a simple slash of the red pen convicts immigrants with those qualifications to penury in Australia when their skills are required outside metropolitan cities.

  7. Andrew Smith

    My understanding was that many of the same source countries for Colombo scholarship students became source countries for fee paying students by the ’80s e.g. children of the same.

    The NOOSR (National Office of Overseas Skills Recognition) or whatever it is known as now, has individual country guides to compare all levels of education including K12 to PhD. based upon their own research (and the UK equivalent), UNESCO guide and Australian missions; updated regularly.

    Any accreditation of equivalence is generally down to individual degree and subject comparisons by individual universities for applications, and professional bodies for membership.

    Met a former board person of the AMA some years ago who described Australia as arrogant in not accepting any other nation’s medical degrees (except NZ?) within reason, and demanding all prospectives to do full entry exams, theoretical and practical, even with long term professional practice and references.

    I’d suggest much of western and northern Europe, Canada, Ireland, UK, NZ, Singapore, HK and many universities elsewhere (e.g. selected private universities in Turkey) and including the USA, compare (more than) favourably with Australia; conversely Australia like elsewhere has individual courses, degrees and universities that are perceived to be of sub-optimal through to high quality.

  8. Phil Pryor

    Dear Sally, start again, addressing relevance, control, fact, research, utility, accuracy, anger management, problems with unfounded assertions, basic lack of applied knowledge, enlightenment, more accuracy. No-one has ever successfully sued, tried, convicted, a disease, flu. cold, cyclone, flood, pestilence, plague, drought, earthquake, etc. But western imperialists and supremacists have done a great deal of murder, theft, occupation, intrusion, slaughter, slavery, etc. Can we now charge and convict say, Cromwell, Rhodes, Churchill and thousands of others. And, who did start or spread aids? These are mysteries indeed. Off shoreing, sweatshops, outsourcing, Caymans, tax havens, bolt holes, dodging, bludging, avoiding, evading, such criminality…Britain fought a war to sell drugs into China, all to enslave and reduce and corrupt and thieve. Is there a little justice in history over time?

  9. JudithW

    I think it should be noted that when it comes to racism, China does not have a clean slate.
    Visiting China was my first experience of being discriminated against because of race.
    But what I experienced was nothing compared to the racism directed at the Tibetans or the Uighurs.

  10. andy56

    Ok, so this is an excuse for china haters and baiters to come out. Lets start with the china is bad issue. Yes china is bad, but where did they learn that? Yes china will use its muscle to get what it wants, where did they learn that? Yes china does put itself first, and where did they learn that? Yes china wants to control its sphere of influence, and where did they learn that? Yes china has grown its economy immensely, and where did they learn that? NOT FROM US.

    You can see where i am going with this.

    Mirror Mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all.

    Its just a little bit of history repeating.

  11. Jack Cade

    Andy 56

    Israel justifies its aggression and huge arsenal by pointing out that it is surrounded by hostile countries. And so it is, and I understand it’s discomfiture.
    But China is absolutely surrounded by US bases. China has done nothing to the USA – quite to the contrary, unless you count it aiding two near neighbours against US invasions, and even then it was looking after its own borders anyway.
    So Australians should take their heads out of their arses and their tongues out of Uncle Sam’s (what a circus act that would be) and wake up to
    the fact that this Island continent is, to China and other trading nations, nothing more than a gigantic Nauru, In the process of being ruined by the same people that left that place as just an enormous worthless hole, and a gigantic Nauru that is completely in thrall to a fast-fading despotic country half a world away.

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