Chinese student inflow hit by travel ban, isolation rules

A federal government-imposed travel ban on visitors from China – including tens of thousands of students due to arrive this month – in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is expected to cost Australia’s universities, colleges and other businesses as much as AU$8 billion (US$5.4 billion) in lost income unless or until the ban is lifted.

With more than two million Chinese students undertaking education courses in Australia, including 1.4 million enrolled in the higher education sector alone, uncertainty over their presence has made the situation for university planners uniquely difficult as they prepare for the formal start of the academic year, with the start of the first semester varying across institutions, from late February to early March.

Catriona Jackson, chief executive of Universities Australia, the national higher education organisation, told University World News that universities would “meticulously follow advice from medical authorities and the Australian government”.

“We are keenly aware of the impact on our students in China who have not yet managed to get to Australia – and our universities are working round the clock to support our students and minimise the disruption to them,” Jackson said.

The coronavirus outbreak has affected more than 40,000 people globally and caused almost 1,000 deaths, mostly in China.

The crisis has created huge disruptions across the Chinese nation, with usually teeming cities in Hubei province reported to have become ‘ghost towns’. This followed the Communist Party government ordering a virtual lockdown of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, and of more than a dozen cities in Hubei province, with flights cancelled, schools shut and factories closed.

Major public events and spaces across the country were also cancelled or closed pre-emptively, including the Forbidden City in Beijing and the Shanghai Disney Resort.

Commenting on the travel ban, Chair of Universities Australia, Professor Deborah Terry, said all the Australian higher education institutions “looked forward to welcoming our international students as soon as possible”.

“Our care and thoughts are with our students in China at this stressful time,” Terry said.

She said Universities Australia was seeking further information from the Department of Home Affairs on the visa status for students unable to enter Australia, as well as those who needed to renew their visa to stay in Australia because of the changed circumstances.

She thanked federal Education Minister Dan Tehan for “formally conveying the government’s commitment to help manage the impact on students”.

“The offer of ‘maximum flexibility’ from government is highly important and we appreciate the commitment to work closely together through the challenges this situation presents,” Terry said.

Visa status of students

Among the issues raised during talks between the Universities Australia Board and the government was the need for further information from the Department of Home Affairs on the visa status for students and other people unable to enter Australia, Terry said.

“We are also exploring flexibility for those students already in Australia who need to renew their visa to stay here because of the changed circumstances.”

But Australian universities and the federal government were “as one” in sending a strong message of support to students in China who had enrolled in Australian universities and colleges, she said.

Under federal Department of Health guidelines, foreign students cannot enrol in Australian higher education or vocational education courses if they have travelled from China’s Hubei province within the previous 14 days.

Students who left or transited through mainland China on or after 1 February are required to “isolate themselves until 14 days after leaving China”.

Also, any students who have been in close contact with a confirmed case of the coronavirus are being told they should isolate themselves for 14 days after last contact with the confirmed case.

Students who have travelled from other provinces of mainland China and have not been in Hubei province prior to 1 February 2020 are able to enrol in a university, as are those who have only been to Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan.

Care and empathy

“To our students still in China – our care, concern and empathy are with you,” Terry said.

“We look forward to welcoming you warmly to Australia to start or continue your university studies here as soon as it becomes possible for you to travel.”

She said all universities wanted to ensure as little disruption as possible to student studies and asked that students keep in contact with their university in Australia to keep updated.

“You are a vital part of our vibrant, warm, global community of students and scholars – and we will extend the greatest flexibility possible to help you through this time,” Terry said.

She added that universities are developing flexible study options for students affected by the travel ban decision, including exploring online study and the potential to delay semester start dates.

“To our students from China who are already with us here in Australia, the warmest of welcomes to you,” she said.

“We know this will be a stressful time as your thoughts will rightly be with family and friends back in China as this situation unfolds.”

Meantime, discussions took place in Melbourne on Monday over the current status of the ban on international students entering Australia.

Representatives from each state and territory government and delegates from the university sector were involved. Others taking part were from accommodation providers, and the Council of International Students Australia.