Tens of thousands of Chinese students enrolled at Australian universities will need to rush into the country before semester one after the Chinese government announced it would stop honouring qualifications gained through online learning.
The Chinese Ministry for Education has released a “special announcement” confirming it would acknowledge degrees awarded only to students attending in-person classes, reversing rules put in place before China’s dramatic loosening of pandemic restrictions.
The edict, published on Saturday, surprised Australian universities accustomed to online learning that were not preparing for so many Chinese students to return at once.
The abrupt policy shift could add demand to scarce flights from China and accommodation markets and put pressure on Australia’s strained visa processing unit, but may also help ease the worker shortage.
“Diplomas and degree certificates awarded in the Spring semester of 2023 (Autumn semester in the Southern Hemisphere) and beyond using cross-border online learning … will not be accredited,” the message to students, which does not specifically mention Australia, stated.
“Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, [the ministry] insisted on putting the health and safety of overseas students in the first place [and] changed our rules for overseas students who had to take some or all of their courses online because of the pandemic.
“The major overseas study destinations have opened their borders, and overseas universities and institutes have fully resumed face-to-face teaching. The Chinese National Health Commission announced that from January 8, 2023, China’s epidemic prevention … entered a new stage.”
“To effectively protect the interests of students who receive overseas education and maintain the fairness of education, [the ministry] has decided to abolish the special … rules”.
Education Minister Jason Clare said the decision could pose short-term logistical problems that he would work with universities and Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil to resolve.
“This is welcome news,” he said in a written statement. “We’re already seeing Chinese students return to Australia with about 3500 arriving so far this month. I know that many universities have been preparing for Chinese students to return to onshore study.”
International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood cited education department figures showing about 62,000 Chinese students enrolled in Australian universities were not in Australia as of mid-November. More than 20,000 enrolled in other sectors such as TAFEs remained in China.
While some of these students would have returned for semester one – which begins in March at most universities, but as early as February at some – Honeywood said the returning group would be larger as a result of the new policy. He said it could lead to increased deferrals in semester one.
Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight elite universities, argued it would be an almost impossible task for some students to return urgently, secure accommodation and obtain a visa within a few weeks.
“We are concerned at the bluntness of this decision and we will seek urgent advice and clarification from the Chinese Embassy on what special circumstance provisions are available,” she said.
“We also urge the [Australian] government to prioritise visa processing for all international students so that we can return to normal and minimise further disruption.”
About 72 per cent of all Chinese students are enrolled at Group of Eight universities such as the University of New South Wales and the University of Melbourne, and Thompson estimated 8 per cent of Chinese undergraduates, and a higher proportion of postgraduates, remained overseas. She added that Australian authorities were planning to reinforce face-to-face teaching rules in June.
Honeywood said the sector expected a transition period to accommodate Chinese students in Australia. “Such a rapid pivot back to regulated face-to-face learning requirements will definitely create challenges for our education providers and our visa processing. Nonetheless, it will be welcomed by most stakeholders,” he said.
“By far the largest cohort of students studying offshore have been Chinese. While many have been gaining top-ranked university qualifications from studying online, the Chinese government wants them to graduate in face-to-face learning mode.”
Student visa applications rebounded as pandemic controls gradually eased across the globe over the past year, providing a fillip for the international education sector that added $40 billion to the Australian economy before the pandemic.
Overall student visa applications were 40 per cent higher in the second half of 2022 than during the same period in 2019.
Education sector leaders said earlier this month that the improved relationship between Australia and China, which deteriorated in recent years as concerns about China’s aggressive behaviour heightened, helped stimulate demand among Chinese students.
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