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Chinese International Students to Move from Zoom to Room: Implications for Australia

24 Feb 2023
By Dr Yu Tao
Chinese students study at SIAS International University in Henan. Source: Gary Todd/

China’s recent decision to impose on-campus learning requirements will push tens of thousands of international students to return to Australian campuses in the next few months. While the short-term challenges of accommodating these students are significant, the policy change may foster valuable long-term opportunities for Australia’s economy and its relationship with China.

On Saturday, 28 January 2023, the Chinese Service Centre for Scholarly Exchange (CSCSE) announced a sudden reverse of its “special arrangements” introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, no longer recognising foreign academic qualifications gained through remote online learning. Given the CSCSE’s status as China’s de facto official agent responsible for verifying foreign higher education qualifications, this announcement effectively required all Chinese students studying online with overseas universities to return to in-person classes starting in early 2023.

In response to the initial confusion and frustration from the international education sector following the announcement, the CSCSE soon issued a supplementary Q&A on Sunday, 29 January, allowing students who couldn’t find a flight or accommodation to seek an exemption from the rule when getting their degree certified. Despite these adjustments, it is anticipated that Chinese international students are expected to arrive in their host countries before the start of the second semester in 2023. For Australia, this means some 40,000 Chinese international students will likely return to campuses Down Under in the next few months.

Why the U-turn?

Without insider information, knowing the actual considerations underpinning the snap decision that the CSCSE, or the Chinese Government, made to terminate recognising foreign academic qualifications gained through remote online learning is impossible.

In its announcement, the CSCSE cited the easing of travel restrictions globally and the resumption of in-person classes in many countries as reasons for the change. However, it has also been speculated that the ban could be an attempt to manage Chinese youth’s “political energy” and unemployment rates by encouraging them to study and live abroad, “at least for a while.”

It is more plausible, in my opinion, that the snap decision reflects the Chinese Government’s desire to move over to a post-pandemic new normal since lifting its draconian zero-COVID-19 policies in December 2022.

Domestically, the Chinese Government has been keen to promote the sense of “a new beginning for the better.” In February 2023, China declared a “decisive victory” in the battle against COVID. Against this background, the CSCSE’s snap decision could be one of the many efforts the Chinese Government has made to push society to abandon pandemic mentalities, stimulating consumption and productivity.

Besides, the CSCSE’s snap decision could also be another effort the Chinese Government made to connect the country back to the global society, as cross-national people flows are essential to foster economic collaboration and cultural understandings. In this regard, the snap decision is consistent with the Chinese Government’s visa retaliation against South Korea’s and Japan’s decision to require negative COVID-19 tests for travellers from China in January 2023.

Short-term Challenges

The CSCSE’s snap decision caught many Australian higher education practitioners off guard, as it came just four weeks before the new semester. Leading experts from the sector, including the chief executives of Universities Australia and the International Education Association of Australia (IEAA), warned about logistic challenges that may be caused by the rush return of Chinese international students.

The CSCSE’s snap decision is expected to cause tens of thousands of Chinese international students to scramble for flights to Australia to resume their studies on campus in the first half of 2023, putting pressure on the already tight student accommodation sector.

The snap decision will also likely put Australia’s visa system under further pressure tests. In recent years, hundreds of Chinese postgraduate students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields faced delays in obtaining visas to study in Australia due to extensive security and background checks. These delays have caused concern among academics who fear a drop in research standards at Australia’s top universities, and the situation will likely get worse before getting better.

Moreover, the snap decision, especially the initial confusion and panic it triggered, caused considerable adverse effects on student and staff experience in Australian universities. For example, during the pandemic, I redeveloped an undergraduate unit into a fully online learning experience for Chinese international students stranded at home due to border restrictions. Within hours of the CSCSE’s initial announcement, I received emails from anxious students worrying their credits would not be counted. In response, I rushed to work with my tutor and colleagues in multiple teams to arrange venues and adjust pedagogies for face-to-face teaching. However, despite our efforts, the enrolment in this particular unit dropped by 50 percent compared to the previous year.

Long-term Opportunities

Despite the obvious short-term challenges, the Australian Government and Australia’s higher education sector generally welcome the CSCSE’s decision to restore on-campus learning requirements. There are good reasons for their optimism.

Before the pandemic, Chinese international students accounted for approximately 40 percent of the international students in Australian universities, bringing in more than AUD$10 billion annually across the education sector. According to data released by the Department of Education before the CSCSE’s announcement, the number of Chinese international students starting higher education in Australia had decreased by 11.3 percent compared with the same time in 2021 and by 27.2 percent compared with 2019. The physical return of international students may help with the retention rate. Moreover, as consumers and potential labour sources, the returned Chinese international students will contribute to Australia’s broader economy, which is expected to “flirt with recession” in 2023.

Having Chinese international students on campus again means much more than the economy. For example, many Chinese international students faced racial discrimination in Australia during the pandemic. Due to their topical nature, these incidents were often picked up by the media, impacting on Australia’s image in China. With more Chinese international students on campus, they should be able to develop a more comprehensive understanding of Australian society, including everyday kindness, which is less likely to be featured in media reports for being ordinary.

Moreover, Chinese international students are “key to future Australia-China relations.” These students bring their unique perspectives, experiences, and traditions to Australia, which can help break down stereotypes, promote mutual respect, and further enrich Australia’s multiculturalism. They can also share their experiences in Australia with networks back home, shaping opinions and perceptions of Australia in China. Therefore, with more Chinese international students on Australian campuses, the people-to-people ties between the two countries will likely be further consolidated in the post-pandemic period.

Dr Yu Tao is a senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Western Australia (UWA), where he currently serves as the discipline chair of Asian Studies. His current research, centring on Global China, intends to provide theoretical reflections and empirical findings to understand how China – as a civilisation, a culture, and a country – presents itself in various globalised fields. He also regularly publishes peer-reviewed works on teaching and learning matters. He can be reached at

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.