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Chinese students scramble to return to campuses abroad after Ministry of Education ends certification of online degrees

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Chinese students enrolled with foreign schools, colleges, and universities must study in-person rather than online going forward, says the Chinese government
  • Following a January 2023 announcement, online credentials obtained from a foreign institution will no longer be recognised
  • All Chinese students who can travel to their study abroad destination in time for an upcoming 2023 academic intake should do so
  • If they cannot attend in person, they will need to provide proof and must arrange travel for the next semester

Perhaps the biggest news story so far this year in international education circles is that the Chinese government has just announced that students must go abroad to study on campus if they want their foreign credentials recognised in China. Online credentials – which had been accepted throughout the pandemic – will no longer be recognised.


The government had, in 2020, begun accepting foreign credentials earned fully through online study. This was related to Chinese students being discouraged from travelling abroad during the pandemic in the interests of their safety. But China has moved to a post-pandemic mode in the past two months in every respect – including the rapid lifting of testing and isolation measures in the country.

This post-pandemic mindset underlies the government’s determination that there is no longer a reason for Chinese students to obtain foreign credentials online.

The Ministry of Education’s 28 January announcement states that students should “return to school as soon as possible”:

“At present, the borders of major study abroad destinations have been opened, and foreign (overseas) colleges and universities have fully resumed offline teaching. In order to effectively protect the interests of overseas students and maintain education fairness, our center has decided to cancel the special certification rules during the epidemic. For the 2023 Spring Semester (Southern Hemisphere Autumn Semester) and after that, the foreign (overseas) diploma certificates obtained by distance learning (including new enrollment and continuing study), the center will no longer provide certification services. If there are special reasons and the relevant regulations are complied with, the center will deal with the case properly.”

Some flexibility

The news that the new rule would apply for students beginning the first semester of 2023 shocked
many students and foreign institutions who could not realistically accommodate that timeline. In response, the Ministry offered an additional announcement, on 29 January, assuring students of additional flexibility in cases where there is simply no way to transition quickly to in-person learning.

Students will need to go to some effort to prove they cannot travel for the first semester and must provide documentation to support their case. If the documentation is approved, those students will be permitted to comply with the new regulations by “the next academic semester.”

For those Chinese students currently studying online who do have the ability to transition to in-person, the next few weeks will be challenging to say the least. Australia’s “autumn” semester intake, for example, is the end of February or early March. In-person classes begin then, with the natural assumption that students will be (a) in Australia and (b) living in some form of suitable accommodation. Those pre-conditions will be difficult to achieve in the short window of time students have been given to travel overseas to campuses.

Foreign educators will have their hands full

Students will not be the only ones grappling with the logistics implied by the government’s new rules. Foreign institutions with sizeable numbers of Chinese students currently enrolled in programmes offered through distance learning may find it very challenging to quickly absorb those students onto campus.

There are the matters of air travel, visas, accommodation, and classroom capacity, for example – all details that must be figured out in weeks in order to bring Chinese students in and prevent massive volumes of deferrals. There are circumstances in many study destinations that will complicate the challenge. For example:

  • Housing: A lack of affordable student housing is a major and growing problem in many destinations.
  • Capacity: Educators have developed strategies for mitigating Chinese student losses during the pandemic – from diversifying their student populations across more nationalities to offering more online courses and investing in sophisticated online platforms. Roughly 20% of Australia’s international students, for example, are currently studying outside of Australia.
  • Visa processes: Leading study abroad destinations, including Canada, the US, and Australia, have had serious visa processing issues in the past couple of years that have created significant problems for incoming students.

Short-term pain, long-term gain

It isn’t that foreign educators will be dismayed at the Chinese government’s new rules. Countless schools, colleges, and universities have struggled with slowing Chinese outbound in recent years and they will welcome the return of students from China. China is still the largest sending market for educators in the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Germany, among others. It is the second largest market for Canada and the third largest for France.

Over the long term, then, the news will be good news for many educators. But for now, it will be difficult to manage the imminent influx of Chinese students from a logistical and capacity standpoint.

Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA), told media that educators had expected a transition period that would have allowed Chinese students and foreign institutions to adjust to a return to in-person learning. He 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.”

At least a third of the nearly 200,000 Chinese students who hold visas for Australian education are studying remotely from China.

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