‘Boycotting China is not sensible’: UQ chancellor hits back at senator’s criticism

‘Boycotting China is not sensible’: UQ chancellor hits back at senator’s criticism

Fergus Hunter – Sydney Morning Herald – Thursday 14 May 2020

University of Queensland chancellor Peter Varghese has hit back at criticism from Liberal senator James Paterson about the institution’s over-reliance on revenue from Chinese students.

Senator Paterson used a speech in Parliament to criticise UQ for using a $200,000 bonus for vice-chancellor Peter Hoj to incentivise stronger ties with China and said the university had not addressed the dangers of over-exposure to a risky market.

Revealing the details contained in a confidential 2019 executive remuneration report leaked to him by someone within the university, the Victorian senator said Mr Varghese and the rest of UQ’s governing senate should have been alarmed that 63 per cent of their overseas students were coming from China.

Mr Varghese, a former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and director-general of intelligence agency the Office of National Assessments, rejected the criticism on Thursday.

In a statement, he said Senator Paterson had “quoted selectively” from the documents to “unfairly attack Professor Hoj’s character under the cloak of parliamentary privilege”.

Mr Varghese praised Professor Hoj’s leadership, saying the university had risen in international rankings during his tenure and he was judged against a range of key performance indicators.

“Fees from Chinese students account for approximately 20 per cent of UQ’s revenue and China is one of the university’s largest research partners. It would be surprising if the management of this relationship was not one of the vice-chancellor’s KPIs. There is nothing subversive about this,” he said.

Universities have been in crisis mode since the outbreak of COVID-19, which has slashed international student numbers. The sector, which has become increasingly dependent on Chinese enrolments, anticipates a blow of up to $4.6 billion over the next six months.

Mr Varghese said his record in diplomacy and intelligence meant he was aware of “both the risks and the opportunities in our relationship with China” and, as UQ chancellor since 2016, he had acknowledged the need to manage over-reliance and take steps, including using the revenue to establish a future fund.

“Diversification will best be achieved by growing other markets not radically shrinking the China market,” he said.

“Australia has to come to grips with China’s emergence as a leading economy and a research powerhouse. Our political systems and values are very different. But boycotting China is not a sensible option.

“What we need is clear-eyed engagement with China which serves our interests and is faithful to our values. We would do well to make that the touchstone of our approach, whether as a nation or a university.”

Responding to Mr Varghese, Senator Paterson said “in many ways it is worse that UQ was aware of the risks but took no steps to manage them”.

“Why didn’t they set up the fund Peter Varghese has talked about? Why did they sign a Confucius Institute agreement without protections for academic freedom? Why did they allow the Chinese government to directly fund university courses?

“Recognising these risks is good but taking action on them is essential. The record shows UQ has failed to do so.”

A UQ spokeswoman said the university had established the future fund this year and it is currently valued at $50 million.

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