Coronavirus impact: Australian universities mull halting major construction projects

Australian universities are weighing up whether to delay major construction projects as the coronavirus outbreak prevents thousands of Chinese students from returning.

68,000 Chinese students enrolled in the Group of Eight universities cannot come back due to Australia’s travel ban, sparking fears of revenue shortfalls. 

Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight, said the potential for deferring projects was "significant".

She told the Sydney Morning Herald: "In one of the cases that we have got, one of our universities is starting a major science precinct … They are slowing that down while they work out what the economic impact [of the travel ban] will be."

To make up for revenue lost this semester, another university is thought to be mulling a delay to a project worth more than A$150m.

In all, 12 universities hosting 80% of Chinese students in Australia had A$1.47bn worth of capital projects under construction in 2017, the most recent available data point.

Thomson warned that any construction slowdown would hurt the economy.

Australia’s travel ban was originally set to last until this Saturday, 29 February, but it could be extended.

 "That will depend on the growth and containment outside of Hubei in mainland China," Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Saturday, the Herald reports.

Australia currently has only 22 confirmed cases of coronavirus, but the explosion of cases in Italy over the weekend – with questions remaining over the source of transmissions – will worry authorities in Australia.

At Queensland University of Technology (QUT), vice-chancellor Margaret Sheil said around 1,200 international students could not return.

While QUT was not as exposed as other schools, she said a thin operating surplus of around A$20m this year could vanish.

"The biggest impact in the longer term, if this was to go on, would be less investment in capital, in facilities," she told the Herald.

Image: A leafy square at QUT’s Gardens Point campus (Kgbo/CC BY-SA 4.0)

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