The foreign-student bubble has burst
AUSTRALIA’S OLDEST university campus should be heaving on a sunny autumn afternoon. Before the pandemic, the University of Sydney hosted more than 70,000 students. At lunchtime they would cram into its cafés and crowd onto its lawns. Now its grounds are practically deserted. Although Australia has almost quashed covid-19, social-distancing rules forced the campus to close in March, and only a few stragglers have stayed on amid the historic sandstone and modern plate glass.
The abrupt halt to international travel is even more painful for Australian universities than their counterparts in other English-speaking countries, because they lean more heavily on revenue from foreign students. More than 440,000 such students enrolled in Australian institutes of higher education in 2019. At the last count, they took up roughly 30% of all places. Almost 40% of them came from a single country, China.
The foreign students are lucrative. In 2018 they brought in almost A$9bn ($5.8bn) in revenue—just over a quarter of all university funding, and far more per head than local students bring in through fees and government subsidies. The boom turned education into Australia’s fourth-biggest export, behind coal, iron ore and natural gas. It funded world-class research centres, shiny new learning facilities and vast collections of art. Vice-chancellors’ pay packets swelled (in big universities they rake in well over A$1m). Campuses bulged to sizes, as an academic at La Trobe University puts it, “matched only by the epic institutions in India and China”.
留学生就是摇钱树。2018年，他们带来了近90亿澳元（58亿美元）的收入，是大学所获总资金的四分之一略多，按人均计远高于本地学生通过学费和政府补助贡献的收入。留学生激增使教育成为澳大利亚仅次于煤炭、铁矿石和天然气的第四大出口产品。它为建成世界一流的研究中心、崭新的教学设施和大量的艺术品收藏提供了资金支持。校长们的工资袋鼓了起来（一些大型院校校长的年薪远超过100万澳元）。大学纷纷开疆扩土，用拉筹伯大学（La Trobe University）一名教师的话说，校园面积已经“唯有印度和中国那些庞大的学府可相提并论”。
For years, this has been the subject of heated political debate. Universities say they were forced to woo foreign students because the government does not give them enough money to cover their rising costs. Michael Spence, the vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, says: “The education of domestic students doesn’t break even.” If Australia is “more dependent on student fees than comparable systems around the world,” he argues, “that’s a decision successive governments have made.”
Some in the current conservative coalition government retort that universities have brought the crisis on themselves. They “bet big on the international-student dollar” and “have become badly over-exposed”, James Paterson, a senator, recently declared. Vice-chancellors have “privatised the profits” from foreign students, “building Taj Mahals to themselves”, a conservative commentator complains. Even some of those employed by universities are critical. “It wasn’t a Ponzi scheme,” says the academic at La Trobe, “but it’s in that ballpark.”
Now, argues Salvatore Babones of the Centre for Independent Studies, a think-tank, “the chickens have come home to roost.” Australia’s academic year starts in January, so as covid-19 first appeared in China, a flight ban locked out an army of its students just as they should have been enrolling. Some wriggled back in through third countries, but Australia has since closed its borders to non-citizens, and they are not likely to reopen until at least the end of the year.
智库独立研究中心（Centre for Independent Studies）的萨尔瓦托雷·巴伯恩斯（Salvatore Babones）认为，现在已到了“自食其果”的时候。澳大利亚的学年从1月开始，因此当新冠肺炎最初在中国爆发时，飞行禁令正好将大批本应入学的学生挡在了门外。一些人通过第三国辗转入境，但此后澳大利亚对非本国公民关闭了边境，并且至少在今年年底之前都不太可能重新开放。
Universities Australia, which represents the industry, is not sure exactly how many foreign students it has lost. The University of Sydney has fallen 17% short of its enrolment target for 2020, according to Mr Spence, and now faces a budget shortfall of A$470m. Across the industry, revenue could fall by A$3bn-4.6bn, according to Universities Australia, putting 21,000 jobs at risk, many of them in research.
Since students who do not enroll this year will not pay fees in 2021 or after, a quick bounceback seems impossible. Peter Hurley of Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute, another think-tank, estimates that the industry might lose A$19bn over the next three years. Building projects and casual staff have already been axed.
由于今年没有注册的学生不会支付2021年或者之后的学费，大学的财务状况看来不可能很快好转。另一家智库维多利亚大学米切尔研究所（Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute）的彼得·赫尔利（Peter Hurley）估计，未来三年，整个行业可能损失190亿澳元。一些建筑工程被取消，临时工被解雇。
So far, the government has been disinclined to help. It says it will still fund the places of domestic students, even if they drop out rather than embrace online learning. But it has excluded universities from its A$60bn wage-subsidy scheme, JobKeeper. Dan Tehan, the education minister, has called for “a greater focus on domestic students”.
Few seem to think universities will fail. Smaller, regional institutions are in the most danger, but since they are an important source of jobs, state and federal governments might be persuaded to prop them up. They will, however, have to shrink to survive. Universities will be “smaller in staffing and smaller in revenue”, says John Dewar, La Trobe’s vice-chancellor. There could be “a massive change in the types of courses they offer”, Mr Hurley predicts. That seems to be just what the government wants. ■