Topics: Return of Chinese students
GREG JENNETT: What is your understanding of the latest on the timeline that Chinese authorities are laying down for return of the international students back to face-to-face learning rather than online learning here in this country?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We got the news from the Chinese Government over the weekend that students could come back and should come back fully face-to-face by the start of semester. That’s three or four weeks from now. Since that point there’s been a bit more flexibility. There are 40,000 students potentially, 60,000 back already by the way, but for those 40,000 there’s a bit more flexibility about whether they have to be here on day one. Obviously. four weeks is not a very long period of time, so that flexibility is terrifically welcome.
GREG JENNETT: So they could engage in some sort of hybrid learning? Could they be online for the start of the year and then, what, by the end of term one will try and make their way ready to start courses?
CATRIONA JACKSON: We are hoping to negotiate that with the Chinese and as I said, there’s been very good backwards and forwards discussion between them and government. We are hoping to have slightly more clarity around that, but there’s been good flexibility and there have been additional announcements post that Saturday announcement from the Chinese with a bit of wiggle.
GREG JENNETT: This is an important part of Australia’s trade relationship with China, and we’ve already been able to reveal on this program that Don Farrell, the Trade Minister, will have a video link up next week with his counterpart, somewhat significant in the thawing process. Would you expect him to seek some clarity around the education component of our trade relationship?
CATRIONA JACKSON: There’ll be a whole range of things that the Trade Minister will address and the confirmation of that meeting is terrifically good news and part of a really fruitful trajectory, I think, as we see those relations improve. We’re hoping we’ll have more clarity before that time, but if we don’t, we expect Don Farrell may throw that in the mix. Keep in mind education is the largest services export for this country and that the biggest number of Chinese students come to Australia for universities of any of other country.
GREG JENNETT: Then that will be incentive for him to address it but take us to the task that does confront Australian universities in the short term here and now. We’re talking a couple of weeks, maybe three at the most. What do they have to do to accommodate even a subset of that 40,000?
CATRIONA JACKSON: Keeping in mind, this is not a surprise, Greg. It’s a little short time than we thought but after two and a half years this is what we’ve wanted – we wanted students back on campus sitting with their Australian friends, and learning face to face. Universities have been preparing carefully and for a long period of time for this moment. Obviously, we’re going to work very hard and very fast, and universities are working very hard and very fast to make sure that students know what to do next. Many of the 40,000 have already got visas, which is terrific. Visa processing has ramped up considerably and just yesterday we had reassurance from the Department of Home Affairs that they are processing visas at a very substantial rate. Those 40,000, most of those students already have a visa, so there’s no problem for most of them, getting a visa, and visa processing has sped up a lot.
GREG JENNETT: Okay. That’s interesting because it has been a problem, but you are pretty satisfied that it’s evaporated?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I wouldn’t say evaporated completely, but they have shrunk down the processing time enormously and they’re processing at a very substantial rate. We’ve been assured by Home Affairs that they’re keeping a very close eye on it. If they need to devote additional resources, they will.
GREG JENNETT: All right. So, they can get to the country. They can get a plane. It won’t pass anyone’s attention that there’s a bit of an accommodation crisis in this country at the moment. What could be done there?
CATRIONA JACKSON: Universities are making sure there’s as good information as they possibly can be, as broad information as there possibly can be for students. Austrade are doing the same with making sure you’re having a good look around at all the options. We’re not going to pretend this won’t be a challenge. In some of the really big urban centres, there is a crunch on rentals, but at the same time, accommodation providers have had a long time to think about this and make sure they’re ready. We’ve heard that some accommodation is getting unlocked so there’s additional supply. We’ll do the best we can. Universities deal with this every year. At the start of every year, students come, and we’ve got to find places and help them to find places for them to live. Their safety, security and happiness is our absolute top priority, but there’s considerable work going on to make sure we can deal with that.
GREG JENNETT: Well you’re saying, Catriona, that this is not unexpected, but are there unexpected costs that universities hadn’t thought, in fact, because this is happening in a pretty truncated time period?
CATRIONA JACKSON: Every university knew this point was going to come from the moment China effectively said “our doors are open, everyone can travel around the world”. This moment was coming. Universities have been thinking about carefully and building them into their patterns. Students book their own accommodation, we don’t house them. Of course, universities own big blocks of accommodation. There may be some costs. There will certainly be a lot of effort to make sure we can make those timelines. But again, there’s been quite considerable and fruitful flexibility from the Chinese around that sort of hard and fast three and a half weeks all got to be back. That doesn’t sound like that’s a thing anymore.
GREG JENNETT: That should be useful. We are talking solely here about international students, but I wonder what sort of messaging there is to Australian universities coming out of the pandemic about their general offerings and the enhanced amount of online teaching that came through the pandemic. Is it an expectation? Are they working towards decreasing that, winding those modules down a little so that face-to-face becomes more the norm for Australian undergraduates?
CATRIONA JACKSON: The answer is yes. We learned an enormous amount about online very, very quickly during Covid as did everyone. When everyone had their students, their kids working in their back room doing their schooling, doing their university work. Rich online offerings simply won’t go away, hybrid models won’t go away, but we heard so clear and so loud that what students wanted the most, most of them, was to get back on campus, face to face. Keep in mind a very large number of students now are mature age, so they actually really want to continue with online options because they have another life – they’ve got jobs, they’ve got kids. Good, rich provision of online school will stay, but face-to-face, wow, kids are waiting for it.
GREG JENNETT: It’s not either or then. But do you have any understanding of the scale of the return to face-to-face in this academic year 2023?
CATRIONA JACKSON: It’s different university by university because they serve completely different communities. Making a generalisation across the board I think would be silly. Certainly, by second half of the year we’ll see an awful lot more face-to-face.
GREG JENNETT: Well certainly a bit happening in that area and I think the expectation, at least on the government’s part, is that student satisfaction would bounce back along with that. So, it’s obviously something they’re asking for. Catriona Jackson, thanks for your thoughts on all of this today. Talk again soon this year, I’m sure.