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Australia prepares for thousands of Chinese students to return as relations improve

SYDNEY — Australia is preparing for the arrival of thousands of Chinese students, the education minister said on Monday, days after China’s education ministry warned students enrolled overseas that online learning would no longer be recognized.

Australia’s education sector, which generated A$39 billion ($27.66 billion) in export earnings before the pandemic, has strong ties to China, with roughly 150,000 nationals enrolled in Australian universities. Tens of thousands remain offshore after pandemic restrictions and strained diplomatic relations led many to return home.

But with three weeks to go before Australian universities start, the Chinese Ministry of Education’s Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange (CSCSE) said on Saturday it would no longer recognize 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,” it said in a statement.

China dropped nearly all of its COVID curbs in December, leading to a surge in COVID cases and deaths as Beijing shifted focus to salvage a faltering economy.

The normalizing of educational ties comes weeks after Chinese officials relaxed import bans on Australian coal as both countries work to improve diplomatic relations after more than two years of Chinese trade sanctions that have frozen trade in barley, coal and wine and other goods and services.

Minister for Education Jason Clare on Monday welcomed the move and said he would work with his counterpart in the home (interior) ministry to help universities resolve any short-term logistical issues.

Phil Honeywood, chief executive officer at International Education Association of Australia, an advocacy body for international education in Australia, said there were currently about 40,000 Chinese students still offshore.

“We anticipate a lot of Chinese students will be scrambling as we speak to get on flights to Australia. However, we imagine there will be a number of deferral applications where students just won’t be able to get back in time,” said Honeywood.

The University of Sydney expects the “vast majority” of students to be on campus when classes start in late February. It plans to phase out on-campus remote learning later this year.

The move by China’s Ministry of Education has been met with anger from Chinese students.

“There are only 15 days left before the school starts — I have no visa, no flight, nowhere to live. With such a short notice, do you want us all sleeping on the streets?” said one comment on social media platform Weibo. — Reuters

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