The simmering tension between Australia and China has flared up on the issue of international students.

On Tuesday 9 June, China’s ministry of education warned students in China to reconsider travel to Australia because of several “incidents of discrimination” targeting Asian people.

The warning is the latest salvo in the spat between the two countries, which started with Australia’s call for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

Australia’s university sector recently released modelling indicating that up to A$16 billion could be lost out to 2023 due to the impact of COVID-19, and in particular the resulting drop in international student numbers. China is the largest source of international students at Australian universities. Chinese international students pay an estimated A$3.1 billion in revenue each year to Australia’s largest universities. A return of Chinese students in numbers will be critical to post-COVID recovery.

China’s warning to its students follows comments in late April by China’s ambassador to Australia that adverse trade consequences may flow from Australia’s demands for a COVID-19 inquiry. Soon after, China imposed tariffs on Australian barley, and some beef imports were blocked.

Australian politicians and leading universities were quick to reject China’s claims. Australia’s education Minister, Dan Tehan, said that Australia “rejects China’s assertions that Australia is an unsafe destination for international students.”

Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, pushed back even more strongly against China’s move, saying:

Australia provides the best tourism and education products in the world and I know that is compelling. We are a open-trade nation but I am never going to trade our values in response to coercion from wherever it comes. One thing Australia will always do is act in our national interest and not be intimidated by threats.

Catriona Jackson, Chief Executive of Universities Australia, said Australia is “one of the safest places in the world, and Australian universities are committed to making it even safer.” Referring to the Chinese ministry of education statement, she said:

statements such as this make things more difficult at a already difficult time.

“Running dog of the US…”

Leading Australian newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald interviewed several education agents to seek their views on the China-Australia dispute.

Amy Mo, the Beijing based chair of education agency Austlink, which sends around 2000 students to Australia each year, said:

If Australian politicians don’t regret and keep being the running-dog of the United States in the name of so-called values, Chinese tourists and students will not go there. I hope Australia can change its attitude toward China. If a country loves Chinese money but doesn’t like Chinese people, China surely is not willing to do business with it.”

Ma Yu, a consultant at, said that China’s warning to students would “definitely bring a huge impact to their willingness to study abroad. Parents are keen on the safety of their children and put safety as a priority.”

First mover advantage

The rising tension between Australia and China is an interesting thread in the broader issue of the re-opening of international student markets post COVID-19. As the first rays of hope start to appear, the main international student destination countries are considering how they can gain “first mover advantage”, and attract as many international students as possible when travel and teaching is once again feasible.

It’s a complex calculation, as governments and institutions consider a range of variables for themselves and ‘competitor countries’, including:

  • When will international travel be possible?
  • What quarantine restrictions will be required?
  • When will large group face-to-face teaching be possible?
  • How may the timing of the factors above align with the start dates of the academic year?

Work with us…

Sources: SMH, The Guardian