Viral Losses: Australian Universities, Coronavirus and Greed

There are few things more richly deserved than the punishment of a profligate ruler who finds himself fending off a hungry citizenry. But such matters lie in the realm of government, elections, holding representative office. Universities, notably in Australia, are oblivious to accountability and have, over several decades, become a booming corporatocracy. Institutionally, they constitute a white collar criminal class that should interest the offices of the public prosecutor.

Their Vice-Chancellors resemble degenerate generals padded with colostomy bags, cutting ribbons and navigating the cocktail circuit. Below them lie the quislings and Vichy academics, the sell-outs and pimps who have bought into the market even as it exploits the student base. They go to meetings, draw up their spread sheets, show that they can be dab hands at data entry. They shirk research and teaching as lowly tasks performed by academic grunts. They attend the management equivalent of Nuremberg rallies.

While this happens, a Demand-Driven Model, to use that unpleasant term, has become the established rationale for recruiting students. International students, in particular, have become the celebrated and mocked “cash cows” of the establishment, ruthlessly and generously milked.

This unsustainable system of ceremonial graft has found itself jerked by the recent travel ban imposed by Australia on those coming from China. In place since February 1, the Covid-19 travel ban has seen a parting of ways between Australia’s universities and the government. Had Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison perhaps reflected on the consequences of such a ban for the tertiary industry, a more measured approach to the virus might have taken place. Instead, Australia faces a potential exodus of students to other markets, leaving its blubbery university sector prime for trimming.

For this fact alone, heads should role. As sociologist Salvatore Babones reminds us in The China Student Boom and the Risks it Poses to Australian Universities (Aug 2019), Australian universities “are taking a multibillion dollar gamble with taxpayer money to pursue a high-risk, high-reward international growth strategy that may ultimately prove incompatible with their public service mission.” The China market figures dangerously and disproportionately. In 2017, University of New South Wales and Sydney could count on 22-23 percent of course fees from Chinese students. Of international student revenue, China accounts for half in the entire university sector.

As Babones documents with alarm, Australia’s universities are simply not appreciative of the financial risk of such a venture. Nor do they make sufficient data available to inform public discussion on that fact. The Covid-19 ban, in other words, was a financial storm waiting to happen. Instead of heading to Australia to commence classes, students such as Lei Feiyang languish in Chengdu, incurring costs without return.

Desperate measures have been implemented by universities such as Monash, which has rescheduled the start of teaching to March 9. Classes in the first week will be delivered in an online format, a potential problem for those whose courses were not originally designed or advertised as such. University propagandists suggest “seamless” joining of programs to prevent undue interruptions. No one should be fooled by this. As Michael Thomson, co-secretary of the NSW branch of the National Tertiary Education Union noted, university authorities were “not being completely clear about what is happening.” Policy was “being made on the hop.”

The Education Consultants Association of Australia had done its modest bit in jogging Australian universities out of their exploitative complacency in a WeChat survey of 16,000 Chinese students conducted between February 5 and 9. The findings did not make pretty reading for Australia’s university politburos, with 32 percent claiming they would be more than willing to enrol in another country if they could not commence first semester studies in 2020. The United Kingdom, with 58 percent, proved to be the highest “redirection destination”. Canada, with 31 percent, and the United States, with six percent, were second and third respectively.

Such findings could not be ignored by even the smoothest university bureaucrat. Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight (Go8), suggested that, “This could be a lost opportunity,” despite making a feeble effort to reassure students to “hang in there and stay with us.”

Ahmed Ademoglu, National President of the Council of International Students Australia, stated the obvious: students felt “exploited” and were reconsidering options. “These Chinese students may have friends or relatives at school level who are considering coming over here and ask what their experience was in Australia.”

Abbey Shi, General secretary of the Students’ Representative Council at the University of Sydney, has also noted the fury from being in contact with some 2,000 Chinese students who find themselves incapable of returning after having gone home for the Lunar Year holiday. “Universities don’t care about our affected career path, life, tenancy issues, our pets at home.”

A hollow statement from Monash University suggests that all shall be well in the fullness of time. Cash has been supplied; services shall be delivered, even of uneven quality. “If the travel restrictions are not lifted on 22 February, we will work with affected students individually to determine a personalised study plan, which may include remote and intensive study options. Monash is committed to ensuring affected students are able to start their semester one studies and be fully up to date by the end of 2020 and able to progress to second year studies.”

This is all a rather unconvincing way of maintaining students without giving them the service they need, let alone the care they require. And for having exposed Australia’s education sector to levels of staggering greed and overreliance on single sources of revenue, university management across the country should consider some equivalent of ceremonial seppuku, cheered on by the student body and academic toilers.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: