SYDNEY - Universities in Australia have offered cash to stranded Chinese students to encourage them to resume their studies and to assist them to travel to Australia via a third country so they will not be subject to a coronavirus-related travel ban.
The universities in Australia are facing estimated losses of up to A$3 billion due to the travel ban and have been urgently trying to find ways to allow Chinese students to continue with their enrolments.
Of the 109,000 Chinese university students enrolled in first-semester courses, about 65,800 remain in China and have been unable to travel to Australia due to the ban. The ban prevents non-Australian citizens and residents from entering Australia if they have been in mainland China within the previous 14 days.
To assist the students, Australian universities have been offering grants, some of which are designed to encourage students to transit in a third country, where they would have to remain for at least 14 days, before coming to Australia.
Among them, Western Sydney University last week offered A$1,500 (S$1,375) to students to make such a journey. The University of Melbourne has offered A$7,500 to assist with forfeited flights, accommodation and other costs associated with the travel restrictions. The University of Adelaide has offered "care packages" worth up to A$5,000, which includes a fee discount and a contribution towards flights.
About 13,000 students from China have reportedly entered Australia via third countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia since the travel ban was imposed on Feb 1.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday (Feb 27) extended the travel ban to March 7. It will be reviewed again within a week.
The ban has taken a heavy toll on Australia's international student and travel sectors, which are among the country's top exports and together contributed about A$60 billion to the economy last year. China is the largest source of Australia's foreign students and tourists.
Analysis by Deloitte Access Economics found that the number of international visitors to Australia this year is set to drop by 10 to 15 per cent - or 900,000 to 1.5 million visitors - due to the coronavirus and the bush fires.
A partner at the firm, Ms Adele Labine-Romain, said the decline will be worse than visitor drops caused by the September 11 attacks in 2001 and the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2003.
"We have not seen any drop of this size before," she told The Australian on Thursday.
"The problem here is the tourism sector may not rebound. It's very resilient but every airline seat not filled, every hotel room unfilled, cannot be recouped."
The impact of the outbreak is already affecting Australian universities. Some casual staff have had their hours reduced. The universities are also reportedly considering postponing some of their major building and infrastructure works - a move that could have broader economic effects.
An expert on the economic impact of the Chinese student influx, Associate Professor Salvatore Babones, from the Centre for Independent Studies, an Australian think-tank, yesterday condemned the grants offered to Chinese university students. He said it was "morally indefensible" to encourage them to travel to poorer, more vulnerable third countries such as Thailand.
"It is thoroughly unethical for a university to encourage students to undertake risky, refugee-style travel in order to slip into Australia through a third country backdoor," he told ABC News.
To assist students stranded in China, universities have been looking to offer online courses and late enrolments. Some will allow students to miss weeks or even months of class and will offer extra tutorials to help them catch up.
Thousands of Chinese students attending Australian schools have also been affected. The Government indicated on the weekend that it would grant some 760 students an exemption from the travel ban. A further 1,000 Chinese research students at Australian universities were also due to be given exemptions.
But the government yesterday indicated it was likely to reverse these proposed exemptions.
Mr Morrison said on Thursday there would be "no carve outs" to allow Chinese students to avoid the ban.
"We have always acted with an abundance of caution on this issue, and that has put Australia in the strong position we are in this time in being able to contain the impact of this virus," he told reporters.