Universities in Australia have come under pressure to reconsider their heavy reliance on Chinese international students, which critics say poses financial and security risks.
In recent years, Australian universities have made up for a relative decline in public funding by luring hundreds of thousands of foreign students each year.
Australia now has the third-highest number of international students in the world, after the United States and the United Kingdom. Of the almost 365,000 higher education students who enrolled this year in Australia, 137,180, or 38 per cent, were from China. There were 71,541, or 20 per cent, from India and 27,515, or 8 per cent, from Nepal. Singapore was the 10th-largest source, with 6,395 enrolments, almost 2 per cent of the total.
But this heavy reliance on Chinese students has come under growing scrutiny.
A report released on Aug 20 by an Australian think-tank, the Centre for Independent Studies, claimed that Australian universities had exposed themselves to "high levels of financial risk" and warned that the influx could suddenly end if the Chinese economy slows or its currency weakens. It said universities have been routinely compromising their admissions standards to allow foreign student enrolments.
"Over the past two decades, international students in general, and Chinese students in particular, have indeed become the 'cash cows' of Australian universities," the report said. "Dependence on international students from a single country for more than a few per cent of total revenues poses an inappropriate level of financial risk for a public university."
The report examined seven leading universities, including the University of Melbourne and Australian National University. It found that all rely on Chinese students for 12 per cent to 23 per cent of their revenues.
Universities said the international influx has allowed them to improve the quality of their education. Some have been putting aside funds to allow for a future drop in foreign students, though this would be unlikely to cover a sharp decline in numbers from China.
The Chinese student boom, along with growing research links with Chinese universities, has also raised concerns about potential security risks. These concerns were heightened following a clash at the University of Queensland between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing protesters during a demonstration over recent events in Hong Kong. This prompted calls from several federal MPs to ensure that Beijing is not seeking to influence affairs on Australian campuses.
A Liberal MP, Mr Tim Wilson, told The Sydney Morning Herald that Australia must "keep a watchful eye that universities do not become a vehicle for foreign governments to exercise soft influence in Australia".
Concerns have also been raised about research projects between Australian academics and their Chinese counterparts that could result in the development of sensitive technology that could be used for military purposes or to suppress dissent or minorities in China.
There have also been alleged data breaches at Australian National University, which security officials reportedly believe stemmed from China. The state and federal authorities have also raised concerns about the potential influence of China-funded Confucius Institutes at Australian universities and schools.
But the debate has proven divisive and prompted warnings that overblown claims about the loyalties of Chinese students verge on racism and risk tarnishing all Chinese students.
University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence called for the debate to avoid descending into "anti-Chinese hysteria". "We talk in generalities about the Chinese as though every one of our Chinese students was a spy, whereas most of them are coming to Australia for an education," he told ABC Radio. "They are the product of hard-working Chinese families who are investing their life savings... If we want to remain world-class... we are dependent on international student fees."
To address these various concerns, the federal government last week created a new task force to examine the threat of foreign interference at universities. The task force will include representatives of the Education Department, security agencies and universities. It will seek to prevent cyber-security threats and ensure that collaboration with foreign entities does not harm Australian interests.
Education Minister Dan Tehan has said he wants universities and security agencies to work more closely together to identify and prevent foreign threats. "These threats (to universities) continue to evolve," he told ABC Radio last Wednesday. "You have got to continue to work on keeping yourself safe."