Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said universities will “not at any level be questioning” the advice of health authorities on the coronavirus epidemic. More than 100,000 international students are now locked out of the country until at least February 22.
The Morrison government on Thursday said it would extend the travel ban on all-non Australian residents travelling from China for another week after the number of reported cases in China increased by more than 14,000. The death toll from the virus now stands at 1491.
Australia’s rivals in the $1.9 trillion global education market, Canada and the UK, have not opted to impose the same travel restrictions on students returning from China, leading to fears those students could go elsewhere.
“China is a very big country. 1.3 billion people with the largest middle class of any country in the world. Anywhere that Chinese students choose to study they will be very substantially represented,” Ms Jackson said.
“Diversification is embedded in the DNA of every Australian university. We draw from a huge range of places.”
Global ratings agency S&P has warned Australian universities’ credit ratings will come under increasing pressure if the outbreak lasts through the first semester. It has estimated the epidemic could cost universities $3 billion and said the timing “could hardly have been worse” for Australia’s third-largest export industry.
At the University of Sydney, some 14,000 students from China remained overseas – up to 80 per cent of its entire Chinese student cohort. In a letter to staff, vice chancellor Michael Spence said the travel ban was an “unprecedented, rapidly developing situation”.
Sydney will provide the students with a “definitive list” of online course options by early next week.
After the ban was extended on Thursday, the University of Canberra asked its 380 students remaining in China to defer their degrees until semester two, saying issues such as the Chinese firewall made online study difficult.
“We would rather ensure our students continue to receive the high-quality face-to-face experience offered here at UC,” said Deputy Vice Chancellor Geoff Crisp.
Ms Jackson said the universities had now made contact with almost all of the students still stuck in China.
“The thing that we are hearing from them the most is that they just want to have some kind of certainty,” she said.”They are dealing with an enormous amount of uncertainty and stress.”
She said universities would only act on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer.
“Every decision the government has made on the explicit high quality advice of health authorities,” she said.
“This is very well founded advice and the universities will not at any level be questioning it.”
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra
Jordan Baker is Education Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald