- In 2017, Australia's higher education sector generated $32 billion
- The University of Sydney tops the list of institutions dependent on fees from Chinese students — one fifth of its total revenue
- Universities reject criticism they are overexposed to the Chinese student market
That is the warning from Salvatore Babones, an adjunct scholar at the Centre for Independent Studies, who likens the exposure of Australian universities to China's student market to the risks big banks faced during the global financial crisis.
"The risks are primarily financial," Associate Professor Babones said.
"Australian universities have treated Chinese students as the cash cows of the international student market. They've relied on Chinese students for their expansion and funding."
"Australian universities are extraordinarily exposed to the Chinese market, and by extraordinarily I mean that the Australian universities have a multiple of several times the number of Chinese students of any comparable university in the world.
"At these levels of exposure, even small percentage declines in Chinese student numbers could induce significant financial hardship as universities struggle to meet the fixed costs of infrastructure and permanent staff salaries in the midst of a revenue shortfall.
"Large percentage declines could be catastrophic."
Top Australian universities named
In a paper published today by the Centre for Independent Studies, Associate Professor Babones calculates the massive revenue reaped by top-tier Australian universities from international students.
The University of Sydney is atop the list, with fees from Chinese students totalling $500 million dollars in 2017 — or one fifth of its total annual revenue.
The total stock of plant and equipment at Australian universities increased by almost 20 per cent between 2013 and 2017, while the University of Sydney's "key management personnel compensation" rose 74 per cent over the same period.
The University of Melbourne, Australian National University, the University of NSW, the University of Technology Sydney, the University of Adelaide and the University of Queensland are also all overexposed to the Chinese student market, according to Associate Professor Babones.
"If these were ASX-listed companies, the regulators would be all over them to diversify their risk, or at least divulge the risk," he said.
"But because they're public entities they're able to hide behind the shield of government and not let us know the risks they're taking, and not responsibly work to reduce them.
"In the global financial crisis in 2008 the world's governments bailed out the biggest banks because they were too big to fail. A failure in the bank would have caused a rupture in the financial system.
"Right now we have a problem where Australia's big universities are too big to fail."
"You can't let a major metropolitan university go bankrupt, but major metropolitan universities are trading on that knowledge.
"They are taking out loans and they're making long-term commitments to staff and to students based on projected revenues that at a moment's notice could disappear if there's a macroeconomic event involving China and the Chinese currency."
Students treated like cash cows
Abbey Shi is an international student studying arts and law at the University of Sydney. She said many Chinese families made huge sacrifices to send their children to university in Australia.
"Some of them have to sell their properties back in China in order to afford their kids to be studying in Australia."
But Ms Shi said students were not always well supported once they arrived at university in Australia.
"I think there is a point where Australian universities treat international students like cash cows on campus. They oftentimes offer little support on received education or in their life."
Universities reject criticism they are overexposed to the Chinese student market.
Universities Australia chair Deborah Terry said regulators had assessed the vast majority of Australian universities as being in a low-risk financial position.
"As not-for-profit public education institutions, our universities prudently manage taxpayer funds — and have extensive expertise in doing so," she said.
"Universities give constant and careful attention to future trends in student recruitment, and nurture diversity within and across regions, as part of their business planning.
"Australian universities maintain very high admissions standards and strong academic rigour — and those high academic standards safeguard quality and attract international students."
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