Liberal senator hits out at university China reliance, reveals whistleblower documents

13 May Liberal senator hits out at university China reliance, reveals whistleblower documents

Fergus Hunter – Sydney Morning Herald – Wednesday 13 May 2020

Liberal senator James Paterson has taken aim at universities’ reliance on international students, using a speech in Parliament to reveal confidential details about the University of Queensland vice-chancellor’s pay incentives to deepen ties with China.

In a late-night speech on Tuesday, Senator Paterson said a whistleblower from the university had given him a copy of last year’s senior staff remuneration report, which showed vice-chancellor Peter Hoj had received a $200,000 bonus based partly on his success in growing the university’s relationship with China.

According to Senator Paterson’s read-out of the document, one of the key performance indicators Professor Hoj was judged against was a “sound and strategic positioning in China” because of its growth as a research provider and it being a “very important source of international students” for at least another five years.

The remuneration report noted Professor Hoj had visited China six times over 2018 and 2019 and the demand for UQ courses from Chinese students had “continued to grow strongly and we will likely end up with 63 per cent of commencing international students coming from China in Semester 1, 2020”.

Professor Hoj was awarded his “significant” bonus in 2019 even though, Senator Paterson said, he had not been as successful against another key performance indicator seeking “greater diversity” in the international student body to make the university more financially resilient.

“Despite his failure to achieve this KPI, the vice-chancellor was awarded a bonus of $200,000, a significant sum in anyone’s language. Perhaps this is because the remuneration committee regarded the achievement of the China KPI as more significant,” Senator Paterson said.

“But far from an achievement warranting a bonus paid from student fees and taxpayers dollars, the prospect of 63 per cent of the university’s foreign students coming from only one country should have been an alarm bell for the chancellor Peter Varghese, and the governing body of the university, the UQ senate.”

Senator Paterson said international students were welcome on campuses and brought a range of positives but universities had not properly managed the risks in the market.

“Even before the coronavirus, there were good reasons to be concerned about this dependence, particularly on students from China,” he said.

“There was always a risk of a downturn in this market, whether due to natural economic events or as a result of deliberate policy measures introduced by a foreign government we have limited influence over.”

He said over-reliance on China also presented non-financial risks because the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party does not uphold free speech and open academic inquiry.

“These non-financial risks are readily apparent at UQ,” he said.

Senator Paterson pointed to the matter of Univesity of Queensland student activist Drew Pavlou, who is facing disciplinary action related to his protest activities, which have targeted the university’s China ties.

Senator Paterson criticised UQ for its approach to hosting a Chinese government-funded Confucius Institute culture and language centre. He said the original agreement had been “hopelessly inadequate” as it handed too much power to the Beijing-based headquarters.

The university has also offered four courses established with Chinese government funding – an arrangement which has since been ceased.

The University of Queensland has been approached for comment.

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