Go8 lambasts ‘clumsy’ treatment of Chinese students

Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight (Go8), Australia’s leading research-intensive universities, has called on the new federal government to reset relations with China on research, end the treatment of Chinese students as cash cows, and improve pathways into work for international students.

She also urged the government to ditch its predecessor’s policy of “taking fewer students from China and diversifying more into other nations”.

In a speech at the ACBC Australia-China Education Symposium on 10 June, Thomson accused politicians of allowing political concern and rhetoric about China to reach fever pitch.

She lambasted the previous Liberal government, ousted in May’s general election, for its “clumsy”, “misguided” and “unfortunate” treatment of international students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She lamented the number of international students lost to Australia and “won so well” by competitor nations, such as the United Kingdom and United States, who were “rubbing their hands with glee”.

“Our then government told [the international students] to leave; to go home if they could not support themselves financially and medically during the many and long lockdowns, especially in the eastern States.

“What a misguided message to send globally about how our nation viewed those supposedly valued university students. More recently the message the former government sent to those students in an effort to reconnect was equally clumsy,” she said.

The message could be summarised as “come back because we need you to work in our pubs and clubs, restaurants and shops”, she said. “Really, is that the best they could do?”

She said: “They are not a stop gap measure to fill low wage vacancies. Nor are they just a source of institutional and national revenue. They are the world’s next generation of highly qualified professionals for which there is an urgent skills shortage here and overseas.

“For example, Australia badly needs engineers, general practitioners, nurses, IT and cyber security experts, vets, pharmacists, psychologists, optometrists, and the list goes on.”

The Go8 recently convened a series of industry summits which exposed the extent of our skills shortage and brought this sharp message home, she said.

In 2020 international students accounted for 61% of enrolments in information technology, 43% in engineering, and 30% in architecture and building.

International higher degree research students or students studying for a PhD or masters by research accounted for 56% in information technology, 61% in engineering, 44% in agriculture and 40% in natural and physical sciences, she said.

“And we know from figures supplied by the federal Treasury in 2018 that only 16% of international students tend to remain in Australia for any length of time. That means much of that precious knowledge and capability that we have spent literally years training is lost to Australia in the longer term.”

She said: “We simply cannot afford to be disconnected from the global pool of talent that is increasingly critical to our – and our competitors’ – success. Without these students and the graduates they become, our nation will struggle to make economic headway and so continue to fall behind our competitor nations.”

Job pathways for international students

She said it was imperative to understand that if Australia’s national conception of sovereign capacity includes only strengthening educational pathways into the economy for domestic students, this would be “putting a handbrake on our ability to continue to punch above our weight economically”.

She said there should be a review of why this talent chooses to leave, and what incentives are needed – such as renewed visa settings that would allow quality graduates to stay in Australia and work if that’s what they wish to do.

Turning to relations with China, Thomson said the Go8 would like to see the new government “turn the macho verbal dial down somewhat” regarding China.

“We are of course not privy to security briefings, so all I can say is that diplomacy in the old fashioned meaning of the word seems to have been in short supply, especially in the past five years.”

She said from the Go8’s point of view, it would be helpful if there was a diplomacy refresh from the new government, “and also a recognition, and therefore a policy refresh, to reflect the fact that the Go8 does not want our Chinese students treated as cash cows”.

‘Hypocrisy has to end’

“The hypocrisy has to end – in the past we have observed as government embraced private fee-paying students because their fees help fund Australian research, rather than funding it properly themselves…”

She said: “There is so much good that comes from students from China experiencing our way of life. It fosters mutual understanding and respect.

“And it delivers so much more than that – the collaborations borne out of our international partnerships lead to life-changing and lifesaving research which impacts people around the globe.”

She offered the example that the world would not be on its way to removing the scourge of cervical cancer and a number of associated cancers from our young women and men if it had not been for an esteemed Chinese researcher Jian Zhou joining forces with the University of Queensland’s Professor Ian Frazer.

There is also the more recent example of Professor Eddie Holmes from the University of Sydney and 2021 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science winner collaborating with Chinese colleague Professor Yong-Zhen to publish the genome sequence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

Thomson said despite the heightened political rhetoric, Go8 members had continued to burrow away, focusing on the people-to-people engagement that keeps education and research relationships and partnerships alive and thriving, despite the politics bubbling away on the surface.

“With seven Go8 members ranked in the world’s top 100 universities, we are global entities, so we continued to engage with our international colleagues and friends, working on solutions to the global challenges around us.

“That is what high-quality research-intensive universities have always done throughout centuries of wars and cold wars and international disagreements and policy fracas, and human rights and rule of law debates,” she said.

“We continue. We work through. We find ways not to disadvantage the next generations of leaders and the much-needed research that is working away in the background.

“If we did not, then the world’s population would suffer greatly from lack of research impacts, in areas from life-saving medical advances to combatting climate change, and lack of quality higher education to improve their life opportunities.”

‘The best research is global’

“The best research is global. A strong Go8 theme is that research is without borders and the same goes for our students,” she added.

She said the Go8 is “absolutely on board with protecting Australia’s national security” in the work undertaken by its universities.

However, the approach it champions is “building tall fences around small paddocks; a surgical, precise method, not a research or relationship wrecking ball”.

She said the Go8, which accounts for 71% of enrolments from Chinese university students – never lost its strong connection with “our valued students and postgrads from mainland China” and has bucked the national trend by increasing enrolments by 7%.

“This suggests that Chinese students remained attracted to studying at our high-quality, research-intensive universities, despite the challenges posed by closed borders,” Thomson said, and this is even with the majority of them remaining at home in China studying online with the border restrictions imposed during the pandemic.

Some did manage to return in the window when Australia’s borders re-opened and before the Omicron wave again shut China’s – almost 40% of Go8 students from China were onshore in early 2020.

“Sadly, the majority remain offshore for the time being, and we very much thank China’s Ministry of Education for changing policy temporarily to allow extended international online learning to count towards a degree. This was not the case pre-COVID.”

“Now we potentially have students into a third year online with us, by necessity not choice,” Thomson said.

She called on Australia’s new government to refresh its views and “admit the high value we receive, and I don’t mean just dollars, from our students from mainland China”.

“And refresh doesn’t mean – as was the policy of the former government – taking fewer students from China and diversifying more into other nations.”

She said the Go8 educates 160,000 students from over 160 countries and is working hard to recruit more students from the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian nations) region – and she noted the importance of building closer ties with Australia’s neighbours and providing the education needed to support prosperity in the region.

Monash University, for example, has just opened a campus in Indonesia.

But she said that refresh to the Go8 means “saying welcome back on shore to as many of our Chinese students as possible, while of course saying a massive thank you to them for hanging in there with us”.