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Australia’s China Question

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As in a number of other countries, Australian views on the Chinese influence in higher education and research have become a significant issue over the last year or more. In Australia, the debate is vigorous, touching on student enrolment trends, internet protocol and security issues, and Confucius Institutes, and has become rather polarised and politicised, with some critics charging that a few politicians are making political mileage out of the issue.

 

There are, however, two key differences in Australia, compared to the United States and Canada. First is the extent of financial dependence upon Chinese students among universities across the country. Second is the decision not to close any Confucius Institutes.

 

Dependence on the Chinese “Market”

As in a number of other major destinations for international higher education students, individuals from mainland China comprise by far the largest cohort among international students in Australia. Of the almost 400,000 international students enrolled in Australian universities in 2018, Chinese students accounted for at least 30 percent. While this is not necessarily different from other major English language systems such as the United Kingdom or the United States, the degree of financial dependence on international student income among Australian universities is distinct. Recent data drawn from government auditors and individual university annual reports showed that among Australia’s top-tier “Group of Eight” (Go8) universities, several earned 30 percent+ of their annual revenue from international students. The University of Melbourne and the University of Sydney each earned more than AU$750 million (US$532 million) from international students alone. Given that more than 30 percent of this amount derives from Chinese students, it is no surprise that vice-chancellors around the country are nervous about any downturn in Chinese enrolments, and are seeking to rapidly diversify the international student intake at their institutions. It is partly for that reason that enrolments from India rose by 32 percent in 2018, those from Nepal by 51 percent, and those from Brazil by 10 percent. The University of Sydney’s Business School recently launched an AU$1 million fee rebate scheme to attract 100 high-achieving students from other-than-China Asian countries such as Korea and India.

 

Security Concerns?

For much the same reasons, university leaders have tended to resist the concerns expressed by some within Australia’s security organs, such as the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD). The head of the ASD, charged with the defence of the country from global cyber threats, recently underlined that the much vaunted “Shift to the East” also included the rise of leading Chinese centres for technology and research and development, including Huawei’s world leading 5G communications technology, which Australia recently banned with strong backing from the United States. Faced with purported examples of Australia-based Chinese researchers who were also People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers engaged in high-tech research in areas such as quantum computing, robotics, new materials, or artificial intelligence, but who failed to disclose their military status and then returned to China with the results of their research, the response of one prominent vice-chancellor was to dismiss such concerns as “China-bashing.” A report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in late 2018 listed the University of New South Wales (UNSW), one of Australia’s leading research institutions, as among the top few institutions outside China with which PLA scientists copublished. In response, the vice-chancellor of UNSW, which benefits significantly both from collaboration with Chinese scholars and Chinese investment in joint scientific research, defended the institution’s collaboration with China’s National Defense University as a normal part of an internationally engaged university’s work, and pointed out that the results were published in international, peer reviewed journals. UNSW, it was claimed, conducted rigorous assessments to ensure that military expertise was not exported.

 

Australia’s membership in the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing network (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States), which hosts many of the 2,500 scientists, researchers, and engineers reportedly sent overseas by the PLA to work with international researchers in recent years, has only sharpened debate on the issue.

 

Confucius Institutes

Unlike in Canada and the United States, no Australian Confucius Institute (CI) has been closed due to concerns about Chinese influence or political control. Among Australia’s 40 universities, 13 host Confucius Institutes, including six of the eight leading Go8 tier. This does not imply an absence of debate as to their role and significance. Some critics in the media, and a few China hawks, have argued that CIs should be forced to register as foreign entities under Australia’s sweeping new foreign interference laws (similar to the US Foreign Agents Registration Act), passed in mid-2018.

“Unlike in the United States, where politicians from both left and right agree that China is a strategic rival that should be contained, especially in key areas of hightech research and development such as those highlighted in China’s signature Made in China 2025 policy, the debate in Australia is more polarised.”

Arguing that CIs receive funding from Beijing’s Hanban agency, and that their activities seek to influence views about China and perhaps their host universities’ international engagement strategy, some have criticised vice-chancellors for failing to register CIs as foreign entities, and characterised this failure as kowtowing to Beijing for fear of losing students or Chinese research funds. Other centres, such as the USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia and the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, have registered under the new legislation, and the federal government recently sent letters about the new policy to all CIs, signaling that they could be targeted. By contrast, some China scholars have juxtaposed the University of Sydney’s well-endowed United States Studies Centre, for example — charged with advocating the importance of the US defence and strategic alliance and running a wide range of courses as a regular part of the university’s curriculum — with the much smaller and much more modestly funded CIs, which offer a sprinkling of language and Tai Chi courses but play no role in undergraduate or graduate teaching.

 

Openness and intellectual freedom, it is argued, demand that, if universities allow such centres as Sydney’s United States Studies Centre to actively seek to shape debate on Australia’s security and strategic alliance, it is illegitimate to target CIs as potential agents of foreign influence. If CIs were listed, might not France’s Alliance Française and Germany’s Goethe-Institut, for example, also fall under the sweeping new national legislation? Unlike in the United States, where politicians from both left and right agree that China is a strategic rival that should be contained, especially in key areas of high-tech research and development such as those highlighted in China’s signature Made in China 2025 policy, the debate in Australia is more polarised. Part of the reason is that, given its geography and increasing integration within the region, Australia recognises that its future lies in Asia, including its expanding collaborative research profile — notably with China. At the same time, its strategic and defence alliances remain tied to the United States, including via the Five Eyes intelligence network. Quite how the country manages these competing interests is yet to be seen. Its universities are increasingly engaged in international collaborative research, including with China, which has become a major knowledge partner over recent years. China’s knowledge diaspora, an important and growing component of Australian university staff, is anxiously watching developments, including incidents of anti-Chinese rhetoric.

 

Traditionally committed to making their research accessible, but now under pressure to audit international collaborative research on security grounds, Australia’s universities are one site where some of these tensions and contradictions will play out. Their ongoing high-level dependence on international student fees, especially from China, will be a key factor in shaping their responses.

 

This article was first published in International Higher Education.

ANTHONY WELCH

Anthony Welch is Professor of Education, School of Education & Social Work, University of Sydney, Australia.

SEPTEMBER 2019 | ISSUE 6

Education Hubs in Southeast and West Asia

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

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