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7 April 2021

With Greg Earl

Foreign-student diplomacy

Australia has commenced an international education overhaul, which could lead to big changes in the sector.

The number of foreign students admitted is likely to drop, their countries of origin may be different, and fewer students may be educated on Australian campuses. More teaching will be delivered online, and course offerings to foreign students will be linked to Australia’s skills shortages.

In 2019, there were some 750,000 foreign students in Australia, but last week education minister Alan Tudge described the sector’s “incredible growth” as “not sustainable”. This is a sharp reversal of the policies of the Abbott and Turnbull governments in 2016, which aimed to educate at least one million foreign students onshore.

Tudge also told universities to reduce their intake of students from China and India, even though the two countries are the most populous in the region and are Australia’s biggest sources of foreign students. Both countries also have important foreign policy relationships with Canberra.

In announcing the policy changes, the government appears to be overlooking the role of education as an arm of Australian international relations.

Australia is the world’s third-largest provider of offshore education, and education is Australia’s fourth-largest export – it brought in about A$40 billion a year prior to the pandemic. International education is also a soft-power asset. Ever since the introduction of the Colombo Plan in the 1950s, it has promoted stronger international ties and a greater understanding of Australia among its foreign graduates.

Furthermore, a new Australia Institute report says the return of Chinese students could be a circuit-breaker in diplomatic tensions with China.

While some universities have been accused of chasing foreign revenue at the expense of domestic teaching standards, foreign students have faced greater disruption and more variable treatment than many other Australian residents during the pandemic.

But Tudge has dashed hopes that foreign students forced home by COVID-19 will be able to return to Australia anytime soon, saying that the outlook for international travel remained unclear and universities should reduce their dependence on foreign fees accordingly.

Meanwhile, the New South Wales government has launched its own plan to bring 10,000 students back this year through a quarantine scheme.

These developments underline the necessity of viewing international education from a broader perspective, which factors in how important the sector is to Australia’s foreign relations.


China vaccine spreads

China’s vaccine diplomacy is gathering pace, despite Beijing’s role in allowing COVID-19 to spread early last year.

The latest figures from biometrics firm Airfinity show that China has exported almost twice as much vaccine as the European Union or India – even though the World Health Organization has not yet fully approved its products.

China’s vaccination program faces a number of other obstacles: some countries are reportedly reluctant to use its vaccines, and it has to compete with other initiatives, such as the Quad’s plan to produce one billion doses by 2022.

In contrast to China, India has temporarily curbed exports of its COVID-19 vaccine as it ramps up domestic vaccinations to address a new wave of infections. Many wealthy countries – led by the European Union – are also stockpiling the vaccine for domestic use.

China’s export success presents Australia with some difficult decisions as it starts to roll out the vaccine to Papua New Guinea and other countries in the region, where China is also offering its products.

Ideally, neighbouring countries with fragile health-care systems could be protected by the coordinated delivery of an approved Australian vaccine, possibly under multilateral initiatives, such as COVAX or the Quad’s vaccine plan. But the urgency of the challenge suggests Australia should be open to collaborating with China if that is possible.


Wealthy recovery

The International Monetary Fund has raised its forecasts for global economic growth in 2021 and 2022, reflecting the Biden administration’s massive new stimulus spending and the global rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations.

But managing director Kristalina Georgieva says there is a growing wealth gap between developed countries, which are rapidly vaccinating their populations, and poorer countries, which lack the capacity to do so.

By next year, the cumulative loss in per-capita income relative to pre-crisis forecasts will be 11 per cent in advanced economies and 20 per cent in developing countries, excluding China.

As a result, the annual meeting of global finance officials – hosted by the IMF and the World Bank in Washington, DC, this week – is facing intense scrutiny about the role these agencies play in a world where multilateral cooperation is under challenge.

The Morrison government was somewhat ahead of this debate last year, when it increased development aid to the Pacific and South-East Asia to support the region’s management of the pandemic and its recovery.

Though vaccine distribution programs have only just gotten under way, the broader IMF meeting agenda is a reminder that achieving a full recovery in Australia’s neighbourhood will be a long and complex process.


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