‘Overreaction’: China students stuck as Australia closes border

A ban on non-citizens travelling from or through China is leading to chaos in Australia’s university sector.

Australia universities
Australia has closed its borders to people from China, including non-Chinese who have been in the country, which is creating problems for the thousands of international students at the country's universities [File: Jason Reed/Reuters]

Canberra, Australia – More than half the Chinese students enrolled in Australian universities have found themselves stranded in their home country with a new academic year looming after the Australian government imposed a travel ban in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The new term begins in late February at most tertiary institutions and while many new students were expected to arrive in the next couple of weeks for orientation, existing students had returned home for the Lunar New Year.

“Out of 200,000 Chinese international students studying in Australia, 107,000 are still offshore,” said Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia and chair of the International Education Global Reputation taskforce.

“Australia is on the front line of dealing with the [coronavirus] outbreak because of our geographical location and our earlier academic year start date,” Honeywood said.

Chinese students make up almost a third of all international students in Australia and if they are unable to travel to Australia to begin or continue their studies, Honeywood estimates tertiary institutions could lose as much as 8 billion Australian dollars ($5.3bn).

“It’s crucial that we do everything we can to ensure students’ welfare, both in terms of limiting stress and providing distance learning,” he told Al Jazeera. “Institutions are keen to be as flexible as possible … and we’re exploring options with the Chinese government to identify online learning options for students still in China.”

Ban imposed this month

Australia is one of several countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Singapore and New Zealand to introduce a travel ban for non-citizens who have been to China in the past 14 days, including people who have travelled through the country. Multiple airlines have also suspended flights to and from mainland China.

From the start of the month, only citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family members were being allowed to enter Australia from China.

“If you’ve come from mainland China at any time after 1 February, then you’ll be required to isolate for a period of 14 days,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the media on Saturday.

“For anyone other than Australians citizens, Australian residents, dependents, legal guardians or spouses, then you’ll not be permitted entry into Australia.”

Australia Sydney airport
Australia closed its border to arrivals from China on February 1 [File: Brendan Esposito/EPA]

The rulings run counter to World Health Organization (WHO) advice that travel and trade restrictions are not necessary and could in fact make things worse. The number of people known to have the coronavirus exceeded 24,000 on Tuesday. Nearly 500 people have died.

Wang Xining, the deputy head of mission of the Chinese Embassy in Australia, said the Chinese government was disappointed with Australia’s decision.

We are not happy about this situation because they were not alerted – there was not enough time to be alerted about the restriction,” Wang told the media in Canberra.

“We are in touch with the universities and also with the education ministry to sort out a proper solution for these students. We hope their rights and interests will be safeguarded.”

‘An overreaction’

Many of the students themselves are also unhappy with the ban and say it is unnecessary.

“It’s an overreaction,” Abbey Shi told Al Jazeera by telephone.

Shi is an international student from Shanghai, and the general secretary of the University of Sydney Student Representative Council. She believes that students are keeping themselves well-informed about the coronavirus.

“People feel very angry about the travel ban, because it has a lot of consequences for tenancy agreements, university fees, and other contractual obligations, [not to mention] welfare issues,” Shi explained.

Shi said that many international students have long-standing complaints about how they are treated by the Australian government and universities and the travel ban has simply added to their frustrations.

“Students know the sector is very commercialised in Australia, and we don’t get a lot of support from universities in general. We just get treated as a source of income,” she said.

“So they’re angry at how bluntly the decision has been made by the government and now universities are asking students to defer their studies.”

The Australian government has said it will review the travel ban every 14 days and retract it when the outbreak is deemed to have been contained.

Honeywood said that institutions will do their best to assist students who need refunds for tuition fees and purpose-built student accommodation and are looking at options such as waiving deferral fees so new students can begin their studies in the second semester instead.

The Department of Home Affairs has also indicated it would be willing to prioritise visa applications and remove fees for students whose Australians visas were cancelled.

Students unconvinced

The Australian National University’s Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt said in a statement that the university understood there would be disappointment over the government’s decision. About 20 percent of ANU’s students are international students from China.

“If you haven’t yet left for Australia, this means you won’t be able to get here for several weeks,” Schmidt wrote. “We know this will be a shock and want to reassure you that, as a member of our community, we still look forward to welcoming you on campus when you are able to travel … We are committed to making sure you can still pursue your studies with as little disruption as possible.”

The University of Sydney’s Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence advised students to “please take care of yourselves and each other” in a similar statement. Two-thirds of the University of Sydney’s international students come from China; their fees contributed 534 million Australian dollars ($359m) to the institution in 2017 or 23 percent of its total revenue.

No universities contacted by Al Jazeera were available to comment on their plans to support affected students.

Shi, the University of Sydney student, said the information provided by universities had been minimal.

She and her friends have set up chat groups to assist those stranded in China, sharing official information, helping reschedule flights, and linking them up with legal advice for tenancy agreements. 

Shi told Al Jazeera that distance learning was acceptable as an alternative if it was temporary, but was not a possibility for some students.

“The universities have systems in place for distance learning, but assessments are hard to conduct,” she said. “Plus many faculties just can’t do distance learning, for example engineering and medicine which have lab classes.

“Ultimately, many students’ reaction is that they’ll be paying huge fees for distance learning, and that’s a bad deal.”

Source: Al Jazeera