Travel ban risks exodus of students
Australia is in danger of losing a third of new Chinese students to foreign universities, amid concerns the fallout from the coronavirus travel ban, extended by the Morrison government into a third week, will cause lasting damage to the economy.
The Prime Minister will review the ban weekly until the deadly disease is brought under control, despite mounting concerns from business groups and moves by Chinese airlines to push cancellations of flights to Australia until mid-June.
The travel ban extension came as the death toll in China’s Hubei province leapt by a record 242 fatalities to 1369, and cases of the disease increased to more than 60,000.
A major survey of Chinese students stranded in China by the travel ban has found nearly a third of them (32 per cent) would enrol in another country if they were prevented from studying in Australia in the first semester of this year.
The survey of more than 16,000 students, conducted by the Education Consultants Association of Australia, confirms universities’ fears that they risk losing the loyalty of Chinese students.
Group of Eight universities chief executive Vicki Thomson, told The Australian the ECAA survey was a “canary in the coalmine” warning. “While we have this uncertainty, we have this risk of losing students,” she said. “It’s a lost opportunity for the students, a loss for the universities, and a loss to the economy.”
Mr Morrison said on Thursday night he was “very mindful” of the economic impacts of his decision to extend the ban, but he had to act on the “best medical advice”.
“Our first responsibility, my first responsibility, is the health and wellbeing of the Australian people,” he said.
Economists have warned that the impact of the virus, combined with the bushfire crisis, is likely to risk tipping Australia into negative GDP growth for the first three months of this year.
Tourism continues to suffer, with analysis by former Tourism Australia executive Andy Jiang showing it was unlikely that most of the flights between Australia and China that were cancelled because of the virus would be restored within six months of the travel ban being lifted. The cancellations have reduced the number of services from China to Australia from 164 a week to just 20, with many of those believed to be arriving less than half-full.
About 100,000 Chinese students who are expected to study in Australian universities this year are stranded in China. If all of them have to postpone their study in the first semester, universities face losing up to $2bn.
Canada and Britain — major competitors to Australia for Chinese students — have no entry ban to travellers from China, including students. However travellers from Hubei province to those countries are asked to selfquarantine for 14 days.
Mr Morrison has left the door open to extra assistance for universities and other sectors of the economy that are struggling under the travel ban.
“We’re working very closely together with the university sector … it is still some four to six weeks before you’re reaching a period of time where that can really start to impact on the year,” Mr Morrison said.
“They’ve put in place a number of measures with online learning and these types of things which can address that for now … (financial assistance packages) are not measures currently before us, and they are not measures currently being sought.
“When I say that we’re looking at ways to mitigate these on the ground, we’re open to all the options that are there to do that effectively and do that responsibly.”
Higher education groups are growing more anxious about the effects of the coronavirus on Australia’s campuses.
Ms Thomson said the coronavirus was shaping as far worse for universities than the last epidemic that affected travel from Asia, the SARS virus in 2002.
At that time, there were nearly 10 times fewer Chinese students enrolled in Australian universities than there are now. “This will test our resilience in a way it’s never been tested before,” she said.
The Group of Eight said it would “continue to work with our government and the Chinese embassy, our affected students and their families, on strategies to ensure that there are a range of temporary study options available so the disruption is as minimal as we can possibly make it”.
International Education Association of Australia president Phil Honeywood said the travel ban extension could lead to universities starting the academic year later than anticipated.
“Clearly an extension of the travel ban will raise challenges around course commencement and the reconfiguration of time tables,” Mr Honeywood said.
“If any good has come out of this, the past two weeks have provided a great example of collaboration between often competing education providers, levels of government and other stakeholders.
“We’ve been able to identify blockages such as processing and the need for more supportive communication to students … and we have been able to achieve flexibility on online learning and regulation requirements.”
Business groups have warned an extension of the travel ban could compound the damage already done to retailers and the tourism industry.
Major banks this week predicted Australia could see its first quarter of negative economic growth since 2011 as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
Australian Chamber of Tourism chairman John Hart said the
Chinese tourism market had come to a “dead stop” and wanted amendments to the ban.
“We’re urging that there are some ports reopened rather than a blanket ban,” Mr Hart said.
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said an extension to the travel ban would cause further complications for business.
“It will compound the direct and downstream impacts of the bushfires and current travel ban on tourism, businesses and their suppliers,” he said. “The impact has been broader than … tourism businesses. It has impacted retailers, hospitality, suppliers and transport operators.”
International Chamber of Commerce Australia director Bryan Clark called on the government to amend the ban in coming weeks rather than extend the current restrictions.
“It is our hope Australia is nimble enough in its response to contemplate a phasing out of the ban dependent on a risk assessment of those areas of China that have experienced a relatively small infection rate,” he said.
‘This will test our resilience in a way it’s never been tested before’
VICKI THOMSON GROUP OF EIGHT CEO