More than 40,000 university students have been left scrambling to make it to Australia in time for the new semester after the Chinese government announced a snap ban on recognising online degrees obtained from foreign institutions.
Under the new rules, all Chinese students enrolled to study online with overseas providers must be on campus for semester 1 – due to start in a matter of weeks in Australia.
Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup
CEO of the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA) Phil Honeywood said while he welcomed the return to on-campus learning, the sudden timing would cause significant challenges for flights, accommodation and visa approvals.
About 42,000 Chinese nationals with student visas remain offshore, Guardian Australia understands, including 5,500 applicants processed in the past month and 2,400 in the past fortnight.
It isn’t known how many students are yet to apply for a student visa to travel.
Chief executive of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, said there would be “obvious logistical issues” so close to the new academic year.
“We will be working closely with government and industry to ensure universities can quickly respond to this influx and facilitate the safe return of students,” she said.
The Chinese Ministry for Education’s “special announcement”, made on Saturday, reverses rules introduced during the pandemic allowing enrolments and continued studies to take place remotely.
Since the announcement, airlines are already grappling to respond to a noticeable uptick in demand from students for direct flights from mainland China.
Chinese carriers have been under existing pressure to cater to an influx of passengers wanting to travel to Australia as they planned to resume direct flights following Beijing’s border reopening announcement in recent weeks.
Guardian Australia understands that airlines are fielding increased inquiries from Chinese students and expect that even capacity on flights not yet announced will be stretched.
Most flights from China into Australia in recent days have been either full or almost full, however passenger loads on outbound services back to China are smaller.
Chief executive of the Group of Eight Australian universities, Vicki Thomson, said it would be an “almost impossible task” for students studying online to make it home for the start of the first semester.
“Final year students who stuck with us throughout the Covid years may now need to return urgently, secure accommodation and obtain a visa within a few weeks,” she said.
“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.
“We also urge the government to prioritise visa processing for all international students so that we can return to normal and minimise further disruption.”
Just 25% of higher education student visas are processed within a week, while half are processed within a month.
Students from China, India, Pakistan and Iran face longer security and clearance checks when applying for visas, with wait times sometimes blowing out in excess of three years.
Education minister Jason Clare said he was working with universities alongside the minister for home affairs to address “short term logistical issues” stemming from the Chinese government’s decision.
“Chinese students are already returning to Australia with about 3,500 arriving so far this month,” he said.
“Many universities have been preparing for Chinese students to return to onshore study.”
Chinese students took to social media platform Weibo to air their concerns about the delays in processing visas.
“What did Chinese students in Australia do wrong?” one said. “Can’t you see what Australia’s policy is like and send a notice afterward? School starts in a few days, are you kidding me now?”
“There are only a few days left before school starts, are you kidding?” another said. “They are not treating Chinese students studying abroad as human beings.”
Luke Sheehy, executive director of Australian Technology Network of Universities said a “significant number” of Chinese students who had opted to study at its universities online during the pandemic would require assistance.
A University of Sydney spokesperson said while the “vast majority” of students would be on campus for semester 1, it would continue to offer remote teaching “wherever possible” for offshore students unable to make it back.
“From semester 2, we’ll stop delivery of on-campus units remotely,” they said.
A University of Melbourne spokesperson said online learning programs “may continue to be available” in some graduate programs from semester 1 but all undergraduate courses would be on campus.
An RMIT spokesperson said it was “currently working through” how best to help Chinese students who wanted to return to Melbourne campuses, while UNSW said it was “continuing to support” Chinese students working on campus or remotely.