Australian universities may come to regret the end of the Trump presidency

Nov 25, 2020

The share of Chinese students who have applied to study in Australia next year is 53 per cent of all international students compared to 27 per cent last year.

The Mitchell Institute has reported that the number of international students applying to study in Australia in 2021 has fallen precipitously. It also reports that of those students who have applied the number from China has risen relative to the number from the rest of the world. As a consequence, the share of Chinese students who have applied to study in Australia next year is 53 per cent of all international students compared to 27 per cent last year.

Given the Mitchell Institute’s findings the many Australian business interests that profit from the international education market – and not only universities and schools – need to understand both why the proportion of Chinese students applying to study in Australia has increased and why the election of a Biden government in the US may pose a serious risk to the profitability of these interests.

Contingencies that help explain the increase in the proportion of Chinese international students applying to study in Australia include:

  1. Thus far the Chinese economy has recovered from the shock imposed by the coronavirus far more rapidly than have other nations that are major sources for international student recruits and Australia has achieved far greater success in managing the crisis than have Europe and North America.
  2. The growth in the number of Chinese students applying to study in the US declined during the Trump presidency as Washington imposed ever stricter visa restrictions on foreign students who wish to study in the US as part of its strategy to stifle the global competitiveness of China’s economy and limit unemployment an agenda that has compelled Chinese students to seek alternatives.
  3. China’s government officials continue to believe the nation will benefit by ceding families the freedom to send their children abroad to study and China’s labour market continues to pay a wage premium to employees with foreign degrees even if these qualifications were not gained in the US.
  4. Beijing is committed to building a knowledge based society in part by encouraging its citizens to examine facts on the ground in other countries. This is an endeavour that a young international student named Deng Xiaoping embraced when in 1924-1925 he studied in pre-Stalinist Moscow and was taught that Marxism-Leninism held that building socialism requires a mixed economy overseen and managed by a communist party this being an understanding he would institutionalize in China from 1978.

These four contingencies have generated a difficult situation for Australia’s government, assuming it wishes to rebuild Australia’s former standing in the international education market and not follow Trump’s lead and exclude Chinese students from its education system. If Washington and those Australian pro-American mouthpieces, that want the US to continue its effort to halt the rise of China’s prosperity continue with their effort Canberra will need to consider what it truly means to go all the way with a declining USA. This is not least because there is a serious risk that US coercion will push Australia to a point where China’s government feels compelled to cut off the supply of Chinese citizens who study in Australia even though it wants its students to study in OECD countries. Conversely, should Canberra decide to temper its enthusiasm for the American containment agenda and cease playing the part of Washington’s Deputy Sheriff it risks inducing a backlash from the US government and from firms whose interests are closely tied to the United States.

Perhaps even more troubling for Australian interests that profit from the influx of Chinese international students is the possibility that Joe Biden may modulate US hostility to China at a time when alternative sources of international student recruits have collapsed. The Lowey Institute has noted that when Washington signed a trade agreement with Beijing in January 2020 that requires China to buy an extra $US200 billion in goods and services from the US no effort was made to ensure Australian exporters would go unharmed as a consequence. This omission was not criticized by the Democrats. Given this experience, if Biden rolls back the restrictions Trump imposed on international students who wish to study in the US, as he has promised, it is unlikely that any effort will be made by his government to shield Australian interests. It is surely idealistic, moreover, to expect that the US will come to our defence should China choose to use Australia as a ‘whipping boy’ to show others what happens to those who assist the US effort to contain the ability of China’s people to access the prosperity enjoyed by societies such as Australia.

The Bad Orange Man had to go but the cost to Australian interests who profit from the international education market may prove significant.

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