China bans foreign universities’ online only courses

China has suddenly reversed its temporary rules in place for over two years during the COVID-19 pandemic allowing online courses from foreign universities to be delivered to students within China, which is being justified in China as a crackdown on substandard online degree courses.

The concession to foreign universities to allow them to maintain their enrolment of Chinese students during travel bans and lockdowns was seen as no longer necessary as travel begins to return to normal in the region. China in December abandoned its strict ‘Zero-COVID’ policy.

The ministry of education’s Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange (CSCSE) in Beijing said in a statement issued on 28 January that it would no longer recognise overseas degrees obtained via online learning and urged students to return to overseas campuses as soon as possible.

“At present, the borders of major destinations for international study have reopened, and foreign [overseas] colleges and universities have fully resumed offline teaching,” the statement said.

The CSCSE notice said that for the 2023 spring semester (Southern Hemisphere autumn semester) and after that, for foreign (overseas) diploma certificates obtained by distance learning (including new enrolment and continuing study), the centre will no longer provide certification services. If there are special reasons and the relevant regulations are complied with, the centre will deal with the case properly.

However, an exception is being made for Chinese students unable to attend universities in Ukraine and Russia due to the conflict in that region.

An additional notice on 29 January said students who are studying in Ukraine and cannot return to the country in the new semester can attend courses online, and students who study in Russia and are also impacted by the Russia-Ukraine conflict and cannot return to their universities can also have their qualifications recognised.

China had around 6,000 citizens, many of them students, in Ukraine in February 2021, just prior to the Russian invasion. It is unclear how many Chinese students enrolled in Russian universities are affected by the conflict and are still in China.

Universities in Ukraine are providing online classes for many of their students from countries like India, China, Morocco and Turkmenistan, who left during the outbreak of hostilities.

Many foreign universities swiftly moved to online learning when the pandemic emerged and borders were closed to foreign students from early 2020. The proliferation of foreign university online courses came as China in 2021 cracked down on online courses by private education providers within China, which included barring online tutoring platforms from hiring foreign teachers outside China to teach Chinese school-age students.

Previous warnings on online delivery

While the ending of the overseas degrees policy has come without warning, leading to a scramble for visas and flights to major destinations for Chinese students, such as Australia and New Zealand, the ministry had periodically reminded foreign universities of “limits to recognition” of online delivery during the pandemic.

In March 2022 CSCSE emphasised in a notice that that while students enrolled in foreign universities who were studying remotely due to the pandemic would still have their degrees recognised, these policies do not apply to fully online programmes.

The announcement noted that some overseas universities offer both in-person courses, including programmes adapted to online delivery due to the pandemic, and fully distance learning options covering the same content, and CSCSE reminded students to pay attention when selecting the teaching mode as courses designed as fully online programmes from the start would not be recognised by the Ministry of Education.

Experts noted that the Chinese authorities were keen to convey from the start that allowing online classes for stranded Chinese students should not be interpreted as a policy change for broader recognition of remote or distance learning by foreign providers.

The Ministry of Education said in 2021 that some overseas institutions were “using the pandemic” to suddenly increase the number of online courses and extended its “overseas study blacklist” as a signal to providers.

In particular, the authorities are now keen to show they are reining in a proliferation of ‘foreign’ university degrees which purport to give students an advantage over those with domestic university degrees, but in effect may have lower admission and graduation requirements or shorter study periods.

Authorities point to need for ‘quality control’

Chenxing Sang, secretary general of Beijing Overseas Study Service Association (BOSSA) – an association of agents across China that recruit for universities abroad – said on Monday that the reversal of the temporary rule was to maintain “a fair environment” for Chinese students.

“From the last three years, there have been numerous programmes carried out to recruit ‘students’ learning online and issuing degrees or other certificates without strict supervision. It resulted in ‘students’ missing online classes while someone else completed their coursework. It was extremely unfair to students who worked hard in class.”

He added: “I believe that studying abroad is more than just learning knowledge; it is also about experiencing different cultures, communicating with different people, and broadening one’s mind, which cannot be done online.”

Others such as Xiong Bingqi, director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a Beijing education think-tank, noted that a quality gap had emerged between Chinese students doing online courses within China and those who stayed abroad.

“To seek profit, some foreign institutions have offered distance learning programmes with low quality, and recognising this kind of diploma only hurts students who studied hard overseas to get their diploma,” he was quoted in Chinese official media as saying.

Xiong said a strict accreditation system was required to weed out students who just obtained a foreign diploma but learned little.

Others commenting on Chinese social media have noted that with a high graduate unemployment rate, the government is increasing scrutiny of substandard degrees, as Chinese employers increasingly complain of poorer standards among some graduates who did the bulk of their degrees during the pandemic.

Sudden impact on students’ plans

The timing of the sudden decision to scrap recognition of online courses and the call for students to travel back to their overseas universities is seen as being linked to the beginning of the academic year in Australia and New Zealand, and in particular is being seen as related to China’s thawing of diplomatic relations with Australia after a period of strain.

Countries in the Asia Pacific, including Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and South Korea, which have significant numbers of Chinese students enrolled in their universities, particularly in the private sector which was hard hit by the pandemic travel bans, welcomed the change.

For example, some 14,423 Chinese students were studying in Thailand in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, with 70% of them enrolled in private universities.

Australia is expecting back around 40,000 students from China, who were stranded due to travel restrictions. Chief Executive of Universities Australia Catriona Jackson said in a statement on Monday: “China’s decision will encourage students to return to Australia, which is a good thing.

“Happening so close to the new academic year, there are obvious logistical issues that need to be worked through to ensure the smooth return of around 40,000 Chinese students who remain outside of Australia,” she said, adding: “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 from China as well as students from other nations.”

Others have pointed to exit visa backlogs in China.

However, BOSSA’s Sang played down the logistical issues. “Chinese students are more concerned about entry policy than visa policy. They also [need to] address the flight issue, which we believe will be resolved by the end of the year. I also noticed that some accommodation service providers have already promoted their products in China to alleviate travel anxiety.”

CSCSE said, however, that students who had already selected online study for the coming semester and were unable to switch to face-to-face study were eligible to seek a waiver, as “special circumstances” would be considered for accreditation of the online courses.