China winds back online study ban after students left scrambling to get to Australia

Students can seek exemption from rule if they cannot get a flight or a visa in time, Chinese government says

The Chinese government has wound back its snap ban on recognising online degrees obtained from foreign institutions after tens of thousands of students were left scrambling for flights.

The ban, announced on Saturday, required all Chinese students enrolled to study online with overseas providers to be on campus for semester one – due to start in a matter of weeks in Australia.

At the time of the announcement there were about 50,000 Chinese nationals with student visas for Australia but remained offshore, 8,000 of whom had visas due to expire by 30 June.

About 5,500 Australian student visa applications have been processed in the past month and 2,400 in the past fortnight.

On Sunday evening, China’s education ministry released a statement clarifying that if students could not get a visa in time, or could not find a flight or accommodation, they could seek an exemption from the rule when getting their degree certified.

Students who had already selected online study for the coming semester and were unable to switch to face-to-face study were also eligible to seek a waiver.

“After the announcement … some overseas students are very concerned,” the statement said.

“Please don’t worry. You can continue to take online classes during the relevant procedures.

“It is recommended to keep the visa appointment record, the flight cancellation certificate, the reply from the accommodation institution and other relevant certification materials, and submit them together when applying for certification.”

The statement said Saturday’s announcement only cancelled a “special practice” during the pandemic and restored the original certification rules.

It said students would have to complete their course before applying to the education minister for an exemption, but “special circumstances” would be considered for accreditation.

Data released by Australia’s education department, collected prior to the Chinese government’s announcement, found 47,428 Chinese students had started studying in Australia in the year to November 2022.

It was a 13.3% decrease compared to the same time in 2021.

Students from China, India, Pakistan and Iran face longer security and clearance checks when applying for visas, with wait times sometimes blowing out to more than three years – particularly applicants in Stem fields that require department approval to study.

A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said it had recruited an additional 442 staff into visa processing roles to address a student visa backlog over Covid-19.

From July to December last year, about 217,000 offshore student visa applications were finalised – a 72.7% increase on the same period in 2019-20. Approximately 167,000 were granted, the bulk from China.

At the same time, the student visa processing time has reduced from an average of 40 days to 14 days.

Australian education minister Jason Clare welcomes the return of Chinese students.
Australian education minister Jason Clare welcomes the return of Chinese students. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The education minister, Jason Clare, said he was working with universities and home affairs minister to address “short term logistical issues” stemming from the Chinese government’s decision.

He told reporters on Monday it was “good” Chinese students were coming back, with about 3,500 arriving in January.

“I understand the Chinese government has made a further statement overnight with some more flexibility for students returning to Australia and other nation,” he said.

“This creates challenges with getting on flights, getting visas, getting accommodation, but … we’re putting in place all the measures that we can to assist with visa processing.”

Phil Honeywood, the CEO of the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA), welcomed any flexibility offered for Chinese students “desperately trying to get back”.

He said the IEAA was hearing it was “very difficult and expensive” for Chinese students to secure flights to Australia and find accommodation in major cities once they arrived.

Australia’s Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency is requiring education providers to return to at least two-thirds face-to-face learning from semester two, but there are no restrictions on online classes for semester one. So for Chinese students securing face-to-face learning for semester one would also be a concern.

“How many universities will be ready willing and able to have face-to-face teaching on campus in time?” Honeywood said.

“Providers thought they could have six months to gear back to exclusively face-to-face … there’ll be a bit of a scramble now to have sufficient academics on campus to meet expectations.”


Caitlin Cassidy Education reporter

The GuardianTramp

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