China and Australia | Pandemic, trade war? The wellbeing of students will win.

2020 has thrown the kitchen sink at Australia’s international education sector. Could it have something else in store? Are we about to learn which is more corrosive to the international education sector: pandemic or trade war?

In February, Chinese students on their way to Australia to resume studies were turned back. Our sector responded well, as we scrambled to ensure that quality online provision was a viable option for the stranded Lunar New Year cohort, while supporting onshore students with the transition to online study.

As of May 2020, China has the infection rate under control.  The Chinese economy is re-opening.  Australia is embarking on its own staged and cautious re-opening, with infection rates controlled compared with other major destination competitors.

Despite our shared experience in flattening the curve, Australia and China are at loggerheads.  We should be actively negotiating a Sino-Australia ‘travel bubble’ to allow the flow of students to restart.  But the bi-lateral relationship is worsening.

The immediate impacts of the pandemic occur against the backdrop of years of strained relations between our countries.

Before the pandemic struck

Back in May 2018, we warned the sector that a decline in Chinese student commencements was imminent, largely due to strident comments by both governments about the other.  That is exactly what happened, beginning in 2018 for the critical preparatory sectors feeding upstream to higher education and deepening in 2019.

The bi-lateral friction took some shine off Australia’s appeal as an international education destination.

That’s all before the pandemic struck.

2020 Chinese commencements have so far taken a very significant hit.  Commencements in all sectors except VET are now below the levels last seen in 2017.


We need to plan for a slower recovery in Chinese student commencements than we might otherwise expect.  The 2018-2019 decline is baked in.  We can’t allow the COVID-19 collapse in commencements to stick.

Learning from recent experience

Chris Ziguras and Grant McBurnie in 2015 highlighted the ability of Chinese authorities to impact outbound student flows in Governing Cross-border Higher Education,: ‘A vivid illustration of the power of the JSJ to influence student flows is the experience of New Zealand in the early 2000’s, which saw a spectacular and destabilising fall in the number of Chinese students studying in the country’.

Australia is not at the level of a JSJ warning.  Yet.  We may not reach that point at all.  If you’ve been checking in with JSJ advice recently you’ll have noticed that the focus is on the safety and wellbeing of Chinese students studying overseas.  As it should be.

But we know from our post—2017 experience that bi-lateral tensions can lead to other, more subtle forms of warning against studying in a particular destination.

While some commentators sling accusations at our sector for supposed ‘over-reliance’ on China, we need to confront a few truths, as uncomfortable as some might find them:

  • China is a major economic power that cannot yet provide as much quality education capacity as its middle-class requires;

  • Why take China out of the mix?  No-one is suggesting we do that for any other source market;

  • China is a critical diversity market for many Australian education providers;

  • When Chinese students look around the world right now few other destination nations look as attractive, safe, and conducive to good health as Australia;

  • The UK will get infection rates under control, and it is determined to roar back as a challenger to Australia as a destination nation;

  • While the US is currently convulsed with the health and economic consequences of the pandemic and a presidential election in November, the Sino-American relationship could look very different on the other side.

Deepening our engagement

Over decades, the education systems of Australia and China have learnt and benefited from each other.  We research together, train young people together, educate each other.  The New Colombo Plan and other Australian study abroad schemes have boosted the number of students studying in China.

“Our education, training and research engagement has seen our education systems become deeply connected, to the benefit of each.”

This won’t change as a result of the strident language we’re seeing right now.  Behind the stridency, the benefits of our connectedness continue.  Amazing and mutually beneficial education and research partnerships thrive.

We must use this moment to highlight the ways in which Australia and China have managed to flatten the COVID-19 curve, as we look to a controlled re-opening of the borders to at least some international students towards the back end of 2020 or the beginning of 2021.

For now, there are few major destination countries looking as safe for Chinese students than Australia.  And for Australian students desperate to jump on a plane to study abroad in host countries with high quality education systems, China looks pretty good compared with other options.

Let’s leave the bi-lateral relationship to the foreign policy experts and plan for a sustainable return to growth, exchange and collaboration.  For IEAA and its members, the important work continues.



Jeffrey Smart


Co-Founded The Lygon Group in 2017, after 28 years in international education roles at three universities in Melbourne.


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