World / Health

Coronavirus travel ban prompts Melbourne university to offer Chinese students grant

07:56 am on 27 February 2020

One of Australia's most prestigious universities is offering cash grants of $A7500 ($NZ7807) to help Chinese students get around the coronavirus travel ban and resume their studies.

The grants could enable students to return to Australia by serving a two-week quarantine period in a third country. Photo: AFP

The University of Melbourne is offering the grant to cover eligible expenses, including accommodation, airfares and quarantine costs.

But one expert, who has researched Australian universities' "overexposure" to the Chinese student market, said the grants were "morally indefensible".

The offer comes after the University of Western Sydney and Adelaide University offered students smaller amounts of $1500 and $5000 respectively.

The grants could enable students to return to Australia by serving a two-week quarantine period in a third country after leaving China.

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  • On 1 February, the Federal Government banned travellers coming from, or transiting through, mainland China from entering Australia - unless they had spent 14 days in another country.

    Hundreds of Chinese students have served out the quarantine period in Hong Kong and neighbouring Asian countries before returning to Australia to study.

    In a statement, the University of Melbourne said it had been a difficult time for affected students and "we are working hard to ensure they can complete their studies on time".

    "The student support grants are intended to help students with unanticipated expenses incurred as a result of the travel restrictions related to COVID-19 and to help students transition to or return to study at the University of Melbourne," University of Melbourne provost Professor Mark Considine said in the statement.

    Associate Professor Salvatore Babones, from libertarian think-tank the Centre for Independent Studies, said it was "morally indefensible to encourage thousands of Chinese youngsters to travel at this difficult time, especially when they would be transiting through poor, vulnerable countries like Thailand".

    Last year, Professor Babones produced research on the massive revenue reaped by top-tier universities from international students. He warned the University of Melbourne was overexposed to the Chinese student market, and a downturn in students from China would be "catastrophic".

    He said Australia's universities "make very little hard data available" but he believed the University of Melbourne relied on Chinese students for at least 18 per cent of its revenue.

    "No other universities in the world are as exposed to Chinese tuition money," Professor Babones said.

    "That's why we see the very dangerous moral hazard that universities are aggressively lobbying the Australian Government to relax its China travel ban."

    Coronavirus has now reached more than 30 countries, and cases this week spiked in Iran, South Korea and Italy.

    But the World Health Organisation has warned against travel bans, saying such measures only contribute to "fear and stigma". Many experts expect the WHO to declare the virus a pandemic in coming days.

    Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan told the ABC he had been working with the tertiary sector, but university decisions were not dictated by the Government.

    "The Federal Government has been consistent and transparent about the requirements for non-Australians to enter the country since travel restrictions were introduced.

    "We have made the safety of Australians our number one priority and our actions have been guided by expert medical advice."

    A Melbourne University spokesperson declined to address Professor Babones's criticisms.

    "The University of Melbourne recommends that students follow Australian Government travel advice and will consider reimbursements for those who travel in accordance with the advice," the spokesperson said in a statement.

    "The total amount payable to each student for costs incurred will be determined on a case-by-case basis following an application process."

    About 190,000 Chinese students are studying at tertiary institutions in Australia, according to the government.

    - ABC