China-Australia free trade to ‘strengthen HE ties’

Whether or not it is the collective view of all universities in Australia, the lobby group representing them was enthusiastic in welcoming the signing of a China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, or FTA, in Canberra last Monday.

Universities Australia described the agreement as a “landmark” and declared that it would foster an even deeper relationship with China in university education and research.

Belinda Robinson, the group’s chief executive, was present at the historic occasion and said later that Australia and China already benefited from strong collaboration between higher education institutions.

“The Free Trade Agreement will further broaden and deepen an already close relationship on higher education and research between our two countries,” Robinson said.

Number one partner

“In 2009, China became Australia's number one trading partner; in 2012 it became our number one knowledge partner and in 2014 we have taken this fruitful relationship to yet another level through the signing of this FTA.”

She said that since 2003, formal university agreements with China had grown by 171% to 1,237 in 2014 while the value of the agreements to Australia in terms of productivity, trade, foreign relations and cultural understanding was immense. Establishing the free trade agreement would help extend this partnership.

Robinson noted that the agreement included a framework to “advance” mutual recognition of higher education qualifications in both countries through a memorandum of understanding signed by Education Minister Christopher Pyne.

“Universities will also support continued discussion of options for enhanced mobility of students, researchers and academics in both countries and increased marketing opportunities for Australian education providers in China,” Robinson said.

“Our already extensive knowledge partnership with China shows just how strong our universities' desire and commitment is to doing business together – to teach each other's students and to collaborate in research and scholarship.”

She said the strong reputation “for quality academic and student experiences” in Australian universities had resulted in thousands of Chinese students graduating from universities in Australia and also graduating through the delivery of academic programmes in China.

“These graduates are the basis of our future country to country engagement as they work in the Chinese government or enterprises with the benefit of their Australian education, research and networks.”

The agreement

Under the agreement, 77 new education institutions will join the existing 105 Australian providers who have federal government approval to enrol students from China – already the dominant country in terms of students enrolled in Australian universities, schools and vocational education colleges.

Of the more than 535,000 foreign students enrolled in the various education sectors, 142,500 or nearly 27% are from China – far exceeding the 56,300 from India, the second largest source of foreign students.

In higher education, of the 243,000 foreign students taking university courses, more than 90,000 or 37% are from China. Their contribution to Australia’s A$15 billion a year (US$13 billion) education export industry also exceeds that of any other nationality.

Closer ties with the giant nation to the north will be generally greeted with approval by most Australians although there is increasing uneasiness about the presence of cashed-up Chinese investors buying homes, land and entire businesses.

That unease is likely to increase with another aspect of the free trade agreement that will eventually allow Chinese-owned companies in Australia to recruit their own workers from China.


Within higher education, too, there is concern in some quarters about the way Chinese-born senior academics are drawing their staff and postgraduate students largely from China.

One critical university observer has told University World News of numerous cases where Chinese-born heads of department were recruiting most of their postgraduate students from China.

He referred to a Chinese-born professor and head of school at a New South Wales university who had recruited five new PhD students from his homeland “this semester alone”. The academic has identified similar situations occurring in universities elsewhere.

“For a long time, we have had a bias towards America and Europe. We need to shift the focus more towards Asia – and respect the skills and contributions of Asian researchers,” the senior academic said.

“But it is one thing for Australian-born researchers to actively collaborate with Asians – which is great and should definitely be encouraged. But it's a very different thing for, say, an Australian academic of Indonesian origin to almost exclusively work with collaborators and students from Indonesia!

“I'm happy for Chinese-born academics in Australia to collaborate with researchers from China – but sadly many of them take this way too far and work exclusively with Chinese colleagues and students.”

Monash University sociologist Dr Bob Birrell, however, noted that similar complaints had been made in the past when Australian universities were filling their senior ranks with recruits from Britain and America.

Australian academics then objected to the newcomers hiring others from their home countries to fill vacancies in schools and departments. “This is not a new criticism of academic hiring policies,” Birrell said.