Is Australia’s response to the international student crisis similar to China’s?

“It is concerning that the grievances from China’s international students and Australia’s are strikingly similar”

China is the world’s largest country of origin international students, writes Angela Lehmann, head of research at The Lygon Group. In 2018, more than 662,100 Chinese students left China to pursue overseas studies. And Australia is one of the three leading destinations for these young people.

However, what is less discussed is that China is also a major destination country for international students and is currently the third largest receiver of students in the world, with almost 500,000 students studying there in 2018.

Like Australia, China closed its borders to international students in March 2020. Both countries now have large groups of international students wanting to return. And these groups are becoming increasingly vocal as their situations worsen.

China’s international students have organised themselves, forming a union and petitioning the Chinese government to allow them to re-enter, using social media to lobby their cause. At the same time, Australia’s international students are pulling together to lobby the Australian government. A petition of more than 17,000 signatures was presented to the Australian parliament last week.

What is striking about these two groups of international students, flowing in different directions, is the similarity of their grievances about the governments they are lobbying. China’s international students argue that online courses are not up to scratch, that they have been ignored by the government, and that there is a complete lack of messaging around when the borders will reopen. Likewise, Australia’s international students are claiming almost identical grievances.

There are, of course, differences – politically, socially and institutionally. China’s international students primarily come from Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Thailand and South Korea, with the numbers of students originating from countries along the Belt and Road increasing in recent years. Australia’s international students are primarily from China, India and, to a lesser extent, Nepal.

Australia’s institutions have a longer history of working with international students and all have dedicated international student offices and support services. For some Chinese institutions, these are still developing.

Likewise, studying and teaching online has been a part of student life in some way or other for some time in Australia. For many Chinese institutions, academics and students, the shift to online learning has been a wholly new experience.

At a wider societal level, Australia has long been a multi-cultural country and prides itself on welcoming people from around the world to live, study and travel. China, on the other hand, has had a more difficult relationship with cultural diversity and do not have a development agenda based on the migration and integration of foreigners.

It is because of these differences that it is concerning that the grievances from China’s international students and Australia’s are strikingly similar.

Given Australia’s history with the international education sector, and the deep economic and social role that the sector plays, it is concerning that student perceptions of the government’s response hasn’t been significantly stronger and more positive than China’s.

Below are some tweets from China’s and Australia’s international students who are hoping to return. I have removed the country’s name – see if you can guess which is which. 

  1. A lot of people believe that XXXX knows we’re not going back till 2022, but they don’t want to tell us because students will quit their universities then and search for other options. Regardless, true or false, we have a right to decide it ourselves. Tell us the truth.
  1. Here are the students whose lives have been put on hold, if you take the time to read you will realize how much of hardships they have to face daily because xxxx refuses to address the issue and show some empathy.
  1. Please open the borders for international students to XXXX. We’re still waiting. Don’t play with our future. We’re also humans. Have a look at our voices.
  1. I request to all agencies who send and guide students to study in foreign countries, please don’t spoil their future by recommending XXXX.

Highlight box below for answers:

Answers: 1. China 2. China 3. China 4. Australia 5. Australia


About the author: Angela Lehmann is head of research at The Lygon Group, an honorary Lecturer at the College of Arts and Social Sciences, Australian National University, and adjunct assistant professor, Department of Sociology and Social Work, University of Xiamen.