Travel ban risks ex­o­dus of stu­dents

The Australian - - FRONT PAGE - TIM DODD RICHARD FERGUSON

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

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