Students rush back to Australia after China bans online learning with foreign universities

Students rush back to Australia after China bans online learning with foreign universities

Karen Zhang was surprised when China issued an order ordering all students studying online at a foreign university to return to in-person classes.

Key points: More than 40,000 Chinese students will have to return to Australia quickly to resume face-to-face classes. The university sector says the quick decision will be challenging for students who do not yet have a visa or residency. Australia’s education and home affairs ministers are working with universities to address “short-term logistical issues”.

The finance student, who is studying online at the University of New South Wales from her home in China’s Guangdong province, is anxiously looking for Australia before classes start on February 20 to complete her final semester of study.

She said the biggest problem was securing accommodation.

“My life plans were disrupted… I planned to go to a city [in China] to work as an intern, and I already got the offer and got accommodation there,” she said.

“Now I have to cancel everything and arrange to return to Australia immediately.”

China’s government made the surprise decision on Saturday, banning all university students from studying online at overseas universities, just weeks before classes start.

This means more than 40,000 Chinese students, like Ms Zhang, will have to quickly return to Australia to resume their studies on campus in order to have their qualifications recognized in China.

Karen Zhang is studying at the University of New South Wales online from home in China. (ABC News)

Matthew Brown, deputy chief executive of the Group of Eight Universities, told the ABC that the announcement had left the country’s top institutions scrambling to get more information.

Dr Brown said the unexpected announcement would have “enormous implications” for the 100,000 Chinese students studying at Australia’s top eight ranked universities.

“We had planned to have students back on campus this year … but it is the sudden announcement happening overnight without any warning … that has really caused concern,” Dr Brown said.

He said the “blunt” decision would have an impact on students who have not yet secured an Australian visa, organized flights or found accommodation in the country’s already tight rental market.

“You would expect … it would put pressure on students to come back to Australia, which in itself is not a bad thing, but that’s just the pressure in the short term,” he said.

“To sort out all those details, I think, would be quite unsettling for students.”

The Property Council of Australia said the rapid return to face-to-face learning would add to pressure on Australia’s already tight student accommodation sector, with some capital cities already expecting zero vacancy rates this year.

Chinese students book tickets as flights return

The Australian Department of Education told the ABC it welcomed the news from China.

It said the education and home affairs ministers were working with universities to address the “short-term logistical issues” of the decision.

More than 260,000 Chinese students were enrolled in Australian universities in 2019. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

More than 260,000 Chinese students were enrolled in Australian universities in 2019 before the pandemic began, accounting for nearly $13 billion in revenue, according to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

A representative from Melbourne Airport told China’s ABC Airlines that more inquiries from students trying to come to Australia are now being reported.

A few dozen flights from China to Melbourne are currently scheduled each week, but that number will soon grow, with Air China and Sichuan Airlines resuming operations to the city.

Before the pandemic, about 150 flights arrived in Australia each week from China.

The airport representative said they expect students to start booking flights to Australia soon, despite tickets costing more than before the pandemic.

More Chinese airlines are expected to return to Australia this week. (Reuters: Loren Elliott)

Melbourne-based migration agent Kirk Yan said ABC student visa applications had increased in the two days since the order was issued.

Mr Yan said although some students would be affected, it was a positive development.

“In the long term, I believe this is a good sign that the international student market is entering the post-pandemic era,” he said.

“More students or parents will understand the new policy and will prepare accordingly.”

‘It’s gonna be a scramble’

International Education Association of Australia chief executive Phil Honeywood said the Chinese government was not comfortable with online learning over classroom teaching.

Mr Honeywood said the Australian government would have to turn resources around and “pull out all the stops” to process more Chinese student visas to get more students back to Australia.

“It will be a scramble, but our universities are prepared for it,” he said.

Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University’s Australian Center on China in the World, told the ABC that China’s high unemployment rate and restrictions had driven the decision.

Mr Sung said China was experiencing high youth unemployment, and the government hoped sending some young people abroad to study would ease the problem.

“One of the consequences of lockdowns has been difficulty in creating job growth, which has resulted in China having one of its highest unemployment rates [rates] among his youth in the past few years,” he said.

He also said the push would drive Chinese youth’s “political energy”, which he said had been a concern for the government since November’s anti-lockdown protests.

“This decision moves them out of China, at least for a while.”

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