Topics: Return of Chinese students to Australia’s universities, artificial intelligence
LAURA JAYES: Joining me live is Universities Australia CEO Catriona Jackson. Thanks so much for your time, Catriona. This must have been music to your ears, this announcement from the Chinese Government. I do note overnight they have walked it back a bit so it might not happen as quickly as we thought, but what’s the effect of this for universities here in Australia?
CATRIONA JACKSON: Laura, you’re absolutely right. This is what we’ve been asking for years. It’s been terrific that the Chinese Government was prepared to relax their restrictions on online for so long during the Covid pandemic, but there always have been rules and they’ve just gone back to their original position. It’s a little bit quicker than we’d expected, so there is a significant amount of work going on inside universities now and in the accommodation sector, but we are looking forward enormously to seeing their students back and making contact with as many of them as we can to make sure they’ve got the best advice about how to get back here and how to get back here quickly.
LAURA JAYES: So how many are you talking about that have been doing online study that will soon be in Australia?
CATRIONA JACKSON: Sixty thousand have come back already – I’m not sure that’s broadly known – 60,000 back already, really looking forward to that first week of term in about three or four weeks’ time. About 40,000 are outstanding. We don’t expect all 40,000 of those will come in the next three weeks. Also, as you already said, the Chinese Government have displayed quite substantial flexibility around having to be here on the first day, which is terrific because just moving that number of people is substantial and helping them to find accommodation and get all the things done that need to get done before you start a year at university.
LAURA JAYES: During Covid, there was talk about universities having an over-reliance on Chinese students who typically pay a very big fee. Has the makeup of that changed somewhat post-Covid or is there still that heavy reliance?
CATRIONA JACKSON: China is a very big country, I don’t need to tell you that, more than 1.3 billion people, a very aspirant middle class. Lots of Chinese families are very keen for their kids to get an education in a really good university and Australia has a lot of really good universities, a very good quality sector overall. It’s no surprise they are very keen to get back. We’ve had increases in numbers from other countries. Nepal is still a very big country making a contribution here, as is India, as are lots of other countries in our region. One hundred and forty-four countries these students come from, but the demand from the Chinese students hasn’t gone down and we’re looking forward very much to seeing them back, many of them, in the next couple of weeks.
LAURA JAYES: The university world seems to be kind of scrambling at the moment when it comes to artificial intelligence and this technology that can simply just write essays that are undetectable. What is being discussed at the moment behind the scenes? Is there a kind of thinking that you don’t try and take it head on but try and work around it? Maybe the days of submitting and writing essays are over.
CATRIONA JACKSON: There’s an enormous amount of conversation inside the university sector and most of the backyard conversations during my Christmas break were occupied with this. Many schools are also having to make decisions on the run. I think it’s really important to take a deep breath and just think about what the implications are here. We all know AI is so sophisticated, getting more sophisticated every day, that the day would come when there would be something like this, where you could ask them to write an essay for you, do a set of KPIs for you, basically do anything for you, and the machine would come up with a credible result. Universities have done lots of thinking about this and I think will take a measured approach. We are very keen to hear there’ll be a consideration at a national level because certainly if you look at what’s happening in schooling, there are an awful lot of rules and regulations, all quite different, being applied across jurisdictions. That’s not really in anyone’s interest, so we’re trying to avoid that.
LAURA JAYES: So, when you say take a deep breath, you’re mildly concerned about it, but it’s not a great surprise. So does that mean that universities have devised a way largely to combat this kind of cheating?
CATRIONA JACKSON: I’d like to be able to say we have all the answers, but we certainly don’t. A lot of the really deep research on AI takes place in university, so we’re in a really good position to think about this and work out what the implications are and how to best respond. Just whacking a ban on it, a bit like banning liquor during the prohibition era, a bit hard to just whack a lid on it. We’re taking a very considered, very careful approach and working out how it is we can make sure that students are getting rewarded for work they have completed themselves.
LAURA JAYES: Okay, Catriona Jackson, always good to talk to you. Thanks so much.
CATRIONA JACKSON: Pleasure.