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China: students must return to study destinations “as soon as possible”

Students in China who have been studying international courses online must now travel to overseas study destination countries, authorities in the country announced on January 28.

CSCSE said it had abolished the Covid-19 accreditation rules "in order to effectively protect the interests of students who receive overseas education and maintain the fairness of education". Photo: pexels

Around 40,000 Chinese students remain outside of Australia

The Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange had permitted students to study online as a result of Covid-19 travel restrictions, but the temporary rules have now been lifted. Students will have to go destination countries to join the first semester of 2023.

They should return “as soon as possible”, it said. CSCSE has restored its pre-pandemic rules as “major overseas study destinations have opened their borders, and overseas universities and institutes have fully resumed face-to-face teaching”, along with the fact that China eased its Covid-19 rules from January 8.

“CSCSE will no longer provide certification/accreditation services for foreign diplomas and degrees obtained during the Spring semester of 2023 (Autumn semester of the Southern Hemisphere) and beyond (including new enrolment and continuing study).

“If there are special reasons which also comply with the relevant regulations, CSCSE will handle it separately case by case,” it however added.

While Australia’s education minister Jason Clare said it was “welcome news” and that the country is “already seeing Chinese students return to Australia, with about 3,500 arriving so far this month”, he warned of short-term logistical problems.

“Everyone expected that there would be a transition period”

Concerns in Australia – where around 40,000 Chinese students remain outside of Australia and semester one begins in February – include visa processing, air flight availability and student accommodation.

“While China has never been comfortable with online learning, everyone expected that there would be a transition period,” Phil Honeywood, CEO of IEAA, said.

“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.”

“I know that many universities have been preparing for Chinese students to return to onshore study,” minister Clare added. The education ministry, home affairs minister Clare O’Neil and Australian universities will have to collaborate to resolve issues, he suggested.

“China’s decision will encourage students to return to Australia which is a good thing,” Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said in a statement.

“Happening so close to the new academic year, there are obvious logistical issues that need to be worked through to ensure the smooth return of around 40,000 Chinese students who remain outside of Australia.”

Leina Shi, director for Education at British Council China, said “it will probably accelerate the returning of Chinese students to the UK for in-person learning, if they were following programs online”.

“It also worth noting that China’s stance on not recognising foreign online degrees has never changed. This recent notice is in line with previous announcements, which have consistently pointed out that recognition flexibility during the pandemic was temporary and does not apply to courses designed as purely online programs,” she explained.

UK HEIs offering transnational education programs in China should coordinate with their local partners to prepare for a return to in-person delivery, the British Council said.

Global head of Insights and Analytics at Navitas, Jon Chew, told The PIE, while not completely unexpected, the timing of announcement – effective immediately – will “likely catch students and families by surprise”.

“Many students have either already started studying online, or are just about to start studying online as a stepping stone to travelling and studying on campus from mid-2023 onwards,” he said.

“For these families, conversations around the reunion dinner table one week ago will need to be revisited. Fortunately, many of them still have another week together till the end of the new year celebrations to come up with new plans.”

Student can either join the rush to get on campus as soon as possible, or delay until the middle of the year, Chew continued.

“The vast majority of IDP students prefer studying face-to-face over online models,” Jane Li, area director Australasia for IDP said in a statement to The PIE.

“Our team will continue to support Chinese students through this announcement, particularly those Australia-bound semester one students who will require visas, flights and accommodation in a short space of time.”

Chew suggested that institutions “that are on the front foot and able to anticipate and accommodate the sudden change in timing for their students will be well-placed to catch a bumper intake in the first semester of 2023”.

The Group of Eight also warned that the announcement “leaves students with little time to return ahead of the start of semester one”. Some stakeholders are worried the decision could lead to Chinese students deferring in the next semester.

However, Chew highlighted that most Chinese families “won’t like the idea of waiting around or putting their lives on pause yet again”.

“They will likely try to join the rush, and revert to a deferment as a fallback option,” he added.

“Final year students who stuck with us throughout the Covid-19 years may now need to return urgently, secure accommodation and obtain a visa within a few weeks – an almost impossible task,” Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight, told AFR.

It is unclear how much flexibility will be offered to students with short time periods left of their course.

The CSCSE said the announcement means that certificates awarded from the first 2023 semester using cross-border online learning will not be accredited.

However, it added that those unable to return due to “objective reasons”, must keep relevant written documents as evidence when applying for accreditation when they are awarded degree certificates.

“CSCSE will conduct a case evaluation according to the specific situations,” it stated.

“We are concerned at the bluntness of this decision”

Additionally, coursework-based degree applicants can continue to complete studies in accordance with the requirements of education providers, while research degree applicants should go to overseas study destination countries for the first semester.

“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 for Chinese students, as we did recently with Australia’s regulatory body TEQSA on behalf of all international students currently studying offshore,” Thomson added.

Go8 also urged the government to prioritise international student visa processing in order to “return to normal and minimise further disruption”.

For Navitas, experience has shown visa processing in China tends not to be a major bottleneck, but the situation “along with all other aspects of travel – will come down to total volumes and Covid-affected staffing”, Chew said.

“For parents and students alike, the final celebrations of the Spring Festival and Lantern Festival will be especially bittersweet as life finally moves on from three years of zero-Covid, but the physical and emotional separation comes much sooner than anticipated,” he concluded.

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