Chinese universities want more Australian students: we should send them

Mar 22, 2024
Students' learning in the classroom

Australia is trailing its neighbours in the race to acquire China knowledge and capability, which can only come from in-country experience, writes Louise Edwards.

Chinese universities are keen to see more Australian students in their courses and on their campuses. At Beijing’s most important annual political meetings held in March this year, the Director of Peking University’s Institute for Global Cooperation and Understanding, Professor Jia Qingguo, called for an increase in foreign students to China’s universities. His proposal to the government outlines the numerous pedagogical, cultural, and financial benefits of an expanded international education program. Australia has seen these benefits first-hand with the spectacular success in attracting international students to our shores.

Australians are keenly aware that education is a hugely profitable export industry—and the benefits are not confined just to universities. A 2023 parliamentary joint inquiry revealed that 60% of the $40 billion export value flowed to the broader economy through student spending on accommodation, retail, transport and food. So, while educational institutions are major beneficiaries, the rest of the economy also does very well.

The numbers of students coming to Australia are considerable. In December 2023, 975,229 international students overwhelmingly from either China or India, enrolled in courses and degrees in Australia. The strict and lengthy COVID border closures applied in both China and Australia didn’t appear to dampen Chinese students’ interest in Australian universities. They comprised 21% of the total and total student numbers are up 2% on 2019 numbers. Chinese arrivals bounced back as soon as the borders opened.

Why wouldn’t China want to get in on this gig?

With Jia Qingguo’s plan, there are golden opportunities in China for Australians who are expert in the marketing of international education. And, while competition for students is fierce with other English-speaking markets, such as Canada, USA, UK, and New Zealand, Chinese universities’ pursuit of international students does not cut into our share of the market. People studying in China are those who see the singular importance of understanding that political and economic powerhouse.

And what of Australian students studying in China? According to the Australian Government’s Strategy for International Education 2021-2030 in 2019, Chinese universities hosted the largest numbers of Australian students studying abroad—comprising a whopping 15% of the total. The next largest group of students, 9%, went to universities in the USA. Australian students are clearly aware of who the big movers and shakers are in the world, and they want to find out more about the two countries likely to determine their futures. And there is nothing like first-hand experience. Being there matters.

But the numbers of Australians studying in China are still small in international terms. Australians comprised only around 1% of international students in China in 2016 with just under 5000 students. Other nations were equipping a far greater number of their students with China knowledge than Australia. In 2018, 50,600 Koreans, 28,608 Thais and 23,198 Indians studied in China but Australia was not even in the top 15 nations. The USA ranked fifth and sent nearly 21,000 students in 2018 but recent pandemic restrictions and political tensions saw this slump to a paltry 350 in 2023. Global competition for graduates skilled in Chinese language and cultural competency is fierce and will continue to be so into the future—and we need to expand our sovereign capability by sending more students.

The Australian strategy devotes only half a page to Outbound Student Mobility but it does recognise the value for Australia in internationalising our students. We have provided an international experience to over three million foreigners in the last five decades—so let’s enable Australians to have the same benefits. The government’s New Colombo Plan supports Australian students to study in Asia, and has for the past decade. The Foundation for Australian Studies in China also has offered scholarships and educational exchanges, but these depend on securing continued public and private funding.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that after an initial period of caution about COVID restrictions, Australian students are returning to exchange programs and intensive in-country training with Chinese universities. This trend is good for Australia. But we need to do better.

We need to ensure that future generations have the training and in-China experience that will secure Australia’s interests in a world in which China is a dominant player. A recent report by the Australian Academy of Humanities identified in-country study as crucial to building high-level China knowledge capability—the suite of skills that businesses and governments need if they want to design and sell a new product, cut another lucrative trade deal or security agreement or generally to engage effectively with China.

Frances Adamson, former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, described in-country China study as “hugely valuable for building the capability which Australia requires” for one of our most challenging and significant bilateral relationships. We need to build a cohort of citizens with advanced China knowledge capability so that they are able to “serve a common Australian purpose” while being “inoculated against bias or oversimplification”.

Policymakers in both China and Australia believe that periods of studying abroad, will have benefits for the host nation that go beyond the individual student’s erudition and career advancement. Both anticipate that a student’s experience will make them sympathetic to their host country. But truth be told, we don’t actually know if it does. And if it does, how deep and sustained is that sympathy?

In the 1950s and 60s under the original Colombo Plan, many students from Malaysia found Australians to be racist and patronising. Australian students studying in China often return with a renewed appreciation of the value of freedom of speech and association. There is no simple correlation between a period of study abroad and either positive or negative feelings towards a host nation.

Recently, Melbourne University researcher, Fran Martin, examined Chinese students’ experiences in Australia and found that many students felt they had to defend China against criticism they found to be unwarranted or based on outdated information. Negative stereotypes of China in the Australian media could have the effect of buttressing loyalty to China. Similarly, Australians studying in Malaysia or China today would also push back against suggestions that White Australia Policy attitudes still dominate here.

For the most part people who live abroad for any extended time, come to appreciate the complexity of their host country and the dangers implicit in basing decisions, large or small, on stereotypical or outdated views. With the magic of people-to-people contact they develop richer and multi-layered attitudes towards their host country. Students who decide to study overseas, by their very nature, are curious and critical—and they learn as much about their own country as they do of their host country through their experience.

Crucially, the contacts, networks, and friendships made during these periods of extended living, studying and working are the very foundation for successful national-level bilateral relationships. We can’t build the human bonds that make the world tick with Zoom, AI and VR.

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