Who Needs a Coronavirus Quarantine When You Can Party in Thailand?

Australian universities are so dependent on money from Chinese students that they’re helping them circumvent travel bans and quarantines. The United States shows a better way.

A student from China poses for family photos after graduating from the University of Sydney on Oct. 12, 2017.
A student from China poses for family photos after graduating from the University of Sydney on Oct. 12, 2017. WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images

When the coronavirus struck, among the first places outside the health care sector to feel the disruption were schools and universities. Many have closed their doors and moved classes online. Along with concerns over possible infection comes another worry: Will the virus keep away international students, who make up a large and growing share of students around the world? The starkly different ways in which schools and colleges in the United States and Australia have been dealing with this issue show how the United States, at least in this aspect of public health, has been getting it right—and Australia very wrong.

The United States played host to nearly 1.1 million international students in the 2018-2019 school year, the latest in a string of record-breaking years going back more than a decade. The coronavirus pandemic may put a dent in the figures for the current academic year, but the impact is likely to be minimal. Most international students had already returned from their winter breaks by Feb. 2, when the United States restricted travel from China. With U.S. President Donald Trump’s March 11 imposition of a travel ban from the European Union, some European students who returned home for spring break will be stranded there as well.

If some commentators are worried about a decline in international enrollments, that is not yet any effect of the virus. Even as total student numbers are up, new enrollments have declined in each of the last three years. Inevitably, this has been attributed to the unpopularity of Donald Trump and his anti-foreigner rhetoric. Look a little deeper, however, and the bulk of the decline can be traced to a collapse in students coming from Saudi Arabia, where declining oil revenues have forced massive cuts in once-generous programs for studying abroad.

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With their large classes full of gregarious youngsters, universities are prime environments for viral transmission.

International students account for roughly 5.5 percent of America’s higher education student body. Even as new enrollments have begun to go down, the quality of these students has risen, with students staying longer and shooting for higher degrees. All of this points to a very healthy international student market. International students enrich the educational environment while making valuable financial contributions to cash-strapped universities. Although a few private universities have gone all-out for international students, no U.S. state university relies on international students for more than 20 percent of its total enrollments. Most have a share well under 10 percent.

So when the coronavirus struck, U.S. universities were able to focus on what matters most: keeping their students safe. Dozens of universities have closed their campuses in response to the pandemic and moved all classes online. Others are likely to follow as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases rises nationwide. With their large classes full of gregarious youngsters, universities are prime environments for viral transmission. U.S. universities are going to great lengths to avoid becoming the next hot spots for the disease.

On the opposite side of the world, the situation couldn’t be more different. Australian universities rely on international students for nearly one-third of their total enrollments, and the education sector as a whole enrolled 957,000 international students in 2019—nearly as many as the entire United States, even though Australia has fewer people than Texas. Unlike in the United States, where many international students attend on scholarships, nearly all of these students pay full tuition. And the biggest group of fee-paying international students at Australian universities, making up roughly 40 percent of international students and 10 percent of total enrollments, comes from China.

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The coronavirus has hit Australian universities hard—even if only one student, a Chinese student at the University of Queensland, has been identified as having the virus. It is the financial impact that has been severe. The University of Sydney is estimated to have as many as 21,000 Chinese students (Australian universities refuse to release figures), roughly two-thirds of whom were caught outside the country when Australia imposed travel restrictions on Feb. 1. As a result, the university has been forced to make 200 million Australian dollars (about $130 million) of emergency budget cuts.

Other Australian universities have gone to extreme lengths to help their Chinese students find a way to make it to Australia in time for the Southern Hemisphere’s fall semester, which started in last week of February. The University of Melbourne, Australia’s top-ranked university, has offered Chinese students payments of AU$7,500 (about $4,900) to help them circumvent Australia’s travel restrictions.The University of Melbourne has offered Chinese students AU$7,500 (about $4,900) to help them circumvent travel restrictions. Australian National University in Canberra is offering AU$5,000 (about $3,200).

Like the United States, Australia is now denying entry to any foreign national who has been in China during the previous 14 days. To get around this rule, Chinese students can travel to Thailand, spend two weeks partying on a tropical vacation, then fly to Australia—with no further quarantine required. The Australian government has confirmed that the route via a third country is acceptable, and travel agents are even offering package tours to help students circumvent Australia’s travel restrictions.

China claims to have the coronavirus under control, and it is quite possible that travel restrictions may be lifted soon. As the epidemic has moved on to Italy and Iran, countries such as Australia and the United States are perhaps no longer threatened by travelers coming from China. In the meantime, no one seems to have considered the real nightmare scenario of the Thailand route: that a Chinese student could develop symptoms of the coronavirus disease while in transit. The student would be dumped on the third country’s health system, prohibited from traveling to Australia, and probably unable to travel home. Australia is, in effect, outsourcing its coronavirus quarantine to its poorer and more poorly equipped neighbors.

Like the United States, Australia also hosts large numbers of international students in primary and secondary grades. Unlike in the United States, however, even public schools have come to rely on tuition-paying students from abroad. International students have become big moneymakers for public schools in two of Australia’s states in particular: Victoria (whose capital is Melbourne) and New South Wales (whose capital is Sydney). In both states, more than half of all international K-12 students come from China.

Thus it came as no surprise that it wasn’t university students, family members, or business travelers who were allowed into the country when Australia relaxed its China travel restrictions on Feb. 22, but tuition-paying international high school students. It was actually Victoria’s education minister who stood on the podium next to Australia’s health minister and chief medical officer to announce the unanimous advice of Australia’s Health Protection Principal Committee that high school students should be the first allowed in.

That’s a prime example of moral hazard run amok. Moral hazard is generated when people expect to reap the rewards of success while others will bear the burdens of failure. The education authorities want to relax travel restrictions so that they can maximize tuition revenue. American universities have behaved responsibly in admitting sustainable numbers of international students.If those students transmit coronavirus to the general population, the health system will have to bear the costs of treatment. And of course all Australians will face the risk of infection.

All Australian universities have prohibited staff from traveling to China, and it is very likely that all high schools have done the same. The University of Sydney has prohibited all “student or non-essential staff travel to China, Hong Kong, Iran, South Korea or Italy.” Yet at the same time, Australian universities are desperately lobbying the government to lift travel restrictions for students coming in. The University of Sydney has even served some of its own dormitory residents with an eviction warning to be ready to vacate on 48 hours’ notice—because their building has been designated as quarantine housing for Chinese students in anticipation of the university’s success in having travel restrictions lifted.

If the United States has avoided this kind of moral hazard in its international student recruitment, it’s because American universities have behaved responsibly in admitting sustainable numbers of international students. The United States can reasonably accommodate a million or more international students. Australia can’t. Most educators agree that internationalization is a good thing, but as with all good things, moderation is the key. Australia’s universities have lost sight of that simple truth. America’s would do well to heed their example and not be seduced by the prospect of earning ever-rising tuition revenues—at ever-greater risk.

Salvatore Babones is a Foreign Policy columnist and an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney. Twitter: @sbabones

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