The brief warning was published on the MoE’s government website on February 5. “Recently, there have been successive vicious incidents of overseas students being attacked in many places in Australia, posing a serious threat to the personal safety of overseas students in Australia”.

The statement did not provide any detail of the nature or location of the attacks.

“The Australian government does not tolerate racism or violence in Australia”

The ministry also noted that international travel still poses great risks amid the coronavirus pandemic, urging students to “conduct proper safety risks assessments, and be cautious in choosing to go to or return to Australia for their studies”.

It is the second warning issued by the government in relation to Australia, the previous one being in June 2020, warning Chinese people not to travel to Australia, as the country has seen “a significant increase in racial discrimination and violence against Chinese and other Asian people due to the pandemic”.

However the Australian federal minister for education Alan Tudge has been quoted in local media refuting the claims, accusing Beijing of spreading misinformation.

A spokesperson for Tudge’s department told The PIE News the Australian government rejects assertions made by the Chinese ministry of education that Australia is an unsafe study destination.

“Australia is one of the safest and most welcoming destinations in the world. We also offer high quality education for students from around the world,” the spokesperson said.

“The Australian government does not tolerate racism or violence in Australia. Students of all ages and backgrounds have every reason to feel safe – whether on campus or in the community. Australia continues to be an inclusive and welcoming place to study for all international students.”

There is speculation the warning is part of an ongoing tit for tat between the two countries which intensified in 2020 when Australia supported a call for an international inquiry into China’s handling of Covid-19. Trade and political relations have declined rapidly since.

Angela Lehmann, education analyst with The Lygon Group said given international education is one of Australia’s largest service exports to China, it was inevitable that this sector would be hit by such a warning in the current climate, along with beef, barley, wine, and resources.

However she said government responses that accuse China of ‘lying’ or ‘spreading false messages’ about the safety of Chinese students in Australia is not a helpful or wise response.

“In reality, there has been a real increase in racism towards Chinese students and Chinese community members more broadly,” she said.

“The recent Scanlon Foundation report Mapping Social Cohesion in Australia shows that 39% of respondents born in Asia had experienced discrimination and 59% view racism as a very big problem in Australia.

“At the same time, the report also shows that 47% of Australians have a very negative/somewhat negative view feeling towards China. This issue needs to be addressed front on, rather than denied.”

She said the role of the media in facilitating prejudice towards Chinese people also needs to be addressed rather than denied.

“Our research indicates that Chinese students and their parents are very savvy at distinguishing between government propaganda and the news. We should take heart in this. However, when the news includes racist messaging and poor experiences of international students, that’s where their decisions could be impacted.”

Meanwhile Australian higher education institutions have reaffirmed their commitment to providing their international students with a safe and welcoming environment.

Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight – Australia’s eight leading research-intensive universities – said they’re seeking to work through the issues raised with the Chinese Ministry of Education and Embassy.

“Our duty of care extends to all of our students  – domestic and international – and never more so at this time whilst we are in the middle of a global pandemic. It is for this reason that it is disappointing to see reports suggesting Australia is an unsafe study destination,” she said.

“We are seeking advice, as we have in the past, from the Chinese ministry of education and the embassy on suggestions that students have been subject to racial attacks. These simply would not be tolerated for any of our students.”

She reiterated Lehmann’s confidence in students and their families to view all information and media reports from all parties critically.

“We know they [prospective Chinese students] will do their own research about our health and safety as it relates to them and we look forward to being able to welcome them back to our campuses as soon as the Australian Government indicates that we can”.

In the meantime she said they’ll continue to provide support to students both in Australia and overseas.

“We have and will continue to show enormous care and compassion for those students who remain off-shore in China and studying on line. We have never underestimated how hard that is for them and we have been pleased  by how they have stuck with us during this  incredibly challenging time.”

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