Tuesday, 14 April 2020

Online Learning - Hydroxychloroquine for the Chinese International Student Market?

Universities around the world are bracing for the "reverse-tsunami" in recruitment from China that is expected to result from the Coronavirus pandemic.  Higher education institutions in those primary international student destinations of the US, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand stand to take a massive and potentially crippling hit in tuition income if, as expected, enrolments nosedive in the next academic year.  For Australia and New Zealand, this crisis is already very real, impacting the beginning of the new academic year starting in January 2020.  For northern hemisphere, September 2020 is approaching and, with it, a looming sense of dread.

These fears appear well founded, with John Ross of Times Higher Education reporting Australian universities including Sydney, Queensland and New South Wales each expect to see reduced income in the A$470m - A$600m ballpark.  Deborah Terry, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Queensland and Chair of Universities Australia, has warned that there could be as many as 21000 redundancies across Australia's HE sector in the next 6 months unless action was taken to bail-out struggling universities.

With major destinations including the UK and US struggling to contain the Coronavirus, a wildfire of anxiety is engulfing the international student community. Students and their families will be constantly and continuously reassessing the risks throughout the summer. Their anxiety is also backed up with concerning data from a recent British Council survey.  Richard Adams and Severin Carrell reported for the The Guardian that, of the 8000 prospective Chinese international students surveyed by the British Council, 22% (1760) intended to cancel their plans to study abroad. More worryingly, 39% (3120) were undecided, with only 27% (2160) indicating their intention to go ahead with overseas study.

UK institutions will be keenly aware that any nosedive in enrolments in UK universities will not be evenly spread, with some universities "modelling between a 50% and 100% drop in international students".  Deferrals, where students would delay studies until the following 2021/22 academic year, are also on the rise.

For those of us in higher education, the shift away from face-to-face teaching to online and remote learning in response to lockdowns, first in China and then around the world, has been swift. Universities are now encouraging faculty to prepare for online delivery to be the norm until at least December 2020.  This may be less of an issue for returning students than for new intakes in September 2020, with many universities concerned that, while online delivery may be able to ensure academic courses are taken, it cannot adequately compensate for the full social and cultural experience essential in helping new students acclimatise to university. Nevertheless, it seems clear that online learning or remote learning is being explored by senior management as a potential "vaccine", with the 2020/21 academic year likely to be, at least, partially delivered online.

If universities can, the thinking goes, persuade new students to enrol and take their first semester online, or perhaps even the whole 2020/21 academic year, then revenue streams will be shored up, and students will still be able to complete courses towards their degree.  This seems logical.  A good idea.  A potential bulwark: turning a tuition-fee-headshot into a tuition-fee TKO. Still bad, but not quite as bad as the alternative.

There is, however, a major obstacle with regards to Chinese international students: the PRC education authorities' current process for recognition of degrees earned outside Mainland China.  And this overseas degree recognition process, without significant changes in the immediate term, has varying implications for Chinese international students and their host universities depending on the student profile.

Chinese International Students: Getting the Overseas Degree Recognised in the PRC.  
As it stands at present, all PRC nationals who earn a degree outside the PRC must get that award recognised by the PRC Ministry of Education.  Without this, the degree is simply not recognised in Mainland China.  For most students, this is a major issue - without recognition of the overseas degree, students will be unable to: (i) apply for Masters, PhD study at Chinese universities; (ii) unable to work in any public sector organisation including state-owned companies, schools, universities, hospitals, government departments, state-media or NGO; (iii) unable to apply to most major private sector companies and multinational corporations; (iv) unable to take any formal career examinations operated by the state (PG entry, Civil Service), and enable students to take advantage of preferential terms related to household registration (户口) and other benefits for returning students.

Inside China, any degrees delivered must be approved and recognised by the Ministry of Education (MoE). A full database of current programmes is provided by the MoE and updated regularly.  When students receive their degree (sometimes dual degrees from a Chinese and foreign university) they must then register their foreign degree online - with only those programmes officially approved for delivery listed as an option.

For students earning a degree outside the PRC, the process is different.  They must go through a two-stage process to which includes (i) obtaining a Overseas Returning Student Certificate (留学回国人员证明) and then (ii) registration with the Overseas Degree Certificate Recognition System (国(境)外学历学位认证系统). On completion of studies, students must follow a set of steps to ensure they can get their degree recognised.

Step 1: Obtaining the Overseas Returning Student Certificate (留学回国人员证明)

This certificate is issued through the PRC Embassies and Consulates in the host country.  For example, the PRC Consulate in Manchester allows students from 31 universities to apply for the certificate.  The following documents and evidence are required:

  1. Degree Certificate from the Overseas university. 
  2. Transcripts (as degree certs in UK do not show start and end dates of study).
  3. Date of initial arrival in UK (Immigration Stamp in their PRC Passport).
  4. Admission Date (to UK degree) which should be after the initial arrival date (see 3).
  5. Proposed date of return to China (if already returned, then this should be the date of return to China)
  6. Scanned copies of Passport ID page, UK Student Visa, and UK Entry stamps. 
This can be done via post within the UK or from China, if the student has already returned home.  

The crucial aspect to recognise here is that *students must evidence their presence inside the country where the foreign degree has been delivered for the duration of that degree*.  

Only once students who have studied overseas have obtained this Overseas Returning Student Certificate (留学回国人员证明) can they then apply to have their foreign degree recognised in Mainland China.  The only other way to have a foreign degree recognised is if that degree has been officially approved for delivery in the PRC (and that specific degree programme is listed on the MoE's official database).  Without one of these two conditions being met, it is impossible to successfully register their foreign degree and have it recognised in China. 


Providing the student has met one of these two criteria (studied on an MoE approved Sin-Foreign degree OR studied overseas and successfully obtained an Overseas Returning Student Certficate from the relevant PRC Embassy/Consulate), they can then move to register their foreign degree.  

This process can now be done entirely online (since 2019) and involves registering with the PRC Ministry of Education Overseas Student Service Center (教育部留学服务中心) through their Overseas Diploma and Degree Certification System (国(境)外学历学位认证), which is adminsitered by the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange, a body under the Ministry of Education which also oversees all foreign university recruitment activities within the PRC.  


The Problem of an Online Degree from an Foreign University 
So. A particularly laborious and bureaucratic process for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese international students who graduate each year from universities outside Mainland China.  Yet, the system outline above presents specific challenges and potential problems down 12-36 months from now for universities education Chinese international students for any proportion of their degree via online delivery. 

Two specific problems arise.  

Firstly, in order to obtain the Overseas Returning Student Certificate, PRC nationals must demonstrate their presence in the country of study for the duration of their degree.  

Secondly, the CSCSE certification process specifically excludes foreign degrees delivered through non-face-to-face learning methods (which are all but impossible to get recognised within the PRC): 


"通过函授、远程教育及网络教育等非面授学习方式获得的国(境)外学历学位证书或高等教育文凭"

"Overseas (foreign) degree certificates or higher education diplomas obtained through non-face-to-face learning methods such as correspondence, distance education and online education"

The At-Risk Chinese International Student Types.
This issue will impact several specific groups of Chinese international students most (these examples are maybe not exactly applicable to Australian and New Zealand unis, where academic year runs Jan-Dec).  Some final year students may begin to encounter problems this summer.


  1. Current final year UG students who returned to China in Semester 2 (Spring semester) and completed their final semester online.
  2. Current Master students who have returned to China and will study online for Semester 2 (Spring) and Semester 3 (Summer)
  3. Chinese international UG students who enter their final year of study in Sept 2020 and study either part or all of their final year remotely (online). 
  4. Chinese international UG students admitted in Sept 2020 and study either part or all of their final year remotely (online). 
  5. Chinese international Masters students admitted in Sept 2020 who study either part or all of their final year remotely (online)

Institutions have a fiduciary responsibility to their students, and students falling into these categories need to be able to trust they will not be channeled into online delivery if that negatively impacts the credentials they earn.  While this may be a consequence of the PRC regulations, the responsbility still (IMHO) rests with the recruiting institution.  Especially as the motivation for shifting to online learning is not borne primarily out of concern for the students, but out of consideration of the bottom-line.

Next Steps?
A major concern here is that both Chinese international students and their institutions are not aware of these requirements. The risk appears to be borne entirely by the students themselves, yet the proposition of large numbers of already anxious students being unable to register the degrees for which they've worked incredibly hard constitutes a significant reputational risk which may not become apparent until it is too late to fix.

The requirement to document presence in the country as a condition of the Overseas Returning Student Certificate, and the stipulation by the CSCSE that they do not recognise online, distance learning or non-face-to-face learning for foreign degrees, presents a major unknown for higher education institutions.

As institutions consider the shift to online delivery, motivated almost entirely by a desire to protect a crucial source of revenue, senior management need to seek clarification from the PRC Embassy Education Section, the Ministry of Education, and the CSCSE - and guarantees that students who complete credit towards their degree via online delivery (i.e. up to 50% of credits earned between January 2020 and December 2021 - or whenever the Coronavirus crisis subsides), will be able to have those degrees recognised.

Until such a guarantee can be given, in writing, with support from the Chinese authorities, institutions have an ethical responsibility to advise Chinese international students of the potential impact of completely any of their degree online.


Dr. Mike Gow is a Lecturer in International Business at the School of Strategy and Leadership at Coventry University.  He previously taught at Xi'an Jiaotong Liverpool University and was Global Postdoctoral Fellow at NYU Shanghai from 2013 to 2015.  His research examines the role and mobilization of non-state sectors including higher education, media, entertainment, sport and consumer markets in contemporary state-building projects in the People's Republic of China. He holds a PhD in East Asian Studies from the University of Bristol's School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies.

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