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Canadian universities largely unaffected by China’s sudden ban on international credentials obtained online

The ban comes three years after China had agreed to recognize coursework completed online at foreign institutions during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Another pandemic-era mandate has fallen in China, which is now refusing to recognize postsecondary credentials that its students are earning abroad through online courses.

On Jan. 28, the country’s Ministry of Education announced that Chinese students enrolled at postsecondary institutions outside of China must attend their university or college in person in time for the start of their next academic term. Degrees or diplomas obtained remotely will no longer be certified by the Chinese government nor recognized by Chinese employers. The next day, the government said it will offer flexibility to students who cannot obtain a study visa, flight and/or accommodation in time. The move was a sudden reversal of the government’s decision in 2020 to allow Chinese students to earn foreign credentials through virtual study in an effort to discourage international travel during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Canada is on the top-five list of destinations for Chinese students seeking to study abroad. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada reports that in 2022, it issued 52,474 study permits to students from China – second after India. This number is down from the 90,006 students that were welcomed in 2018. The decline is partly because of the pandemic, and partly because of eroding diplomatic relations between China and Canada in recent years. But students from China still make up a significant or majority percentage of international enrolment at many Canadian universities.

A sudden rush of international students coming to campus – or withdrawing from courses en masse – halfway through the school year could have been a logistical nightmare. However, the timing of the decision seems to have worked in Canadian universities’ favour. When the Chinese government announced its news, winter semester had already begun at Canadian universities. Moreover, most institutions discontinued online-only learning and resumed in-person classes for the majority of their programs in the 2022-23 academic year.

“There isn’t really any discernable impact for the vast majority of Canadian institutions, as many moved to hybrid or full in-person [courses], so … students are already on campus,” said Philipp Reichert, an adviser to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, and director of global engagement at the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia, which hosted 6,385 students from China in 2021-22, the largest share of its international student population.

“Like many Canadian universities, this academic year, we were happy to fully transition back to in-person education on the TMU campus .… Consequently, most international students have since returned to campuses across Canada and are attending in-person classes,” said Isaac Garcia-Sitton, executive director of international student enrolment, education and inclusion at Toronto Metropolitan University, where Chinese students account for 18 per cent of the international student population.

So far, the development seems to have had the most impact in Australia, where the fall semester generally begins in February or March. This left the country’s universities scrambling to accommodate an influx of approximately 40,000 Chinese students rushing to the country for face-to-face classes.

“Given capacity implications, I would imagine that colleagues in Australia and other countries will face immediate challenges as they prepare for a looming return of Chinese students following this new directive by the Chinese government,” Mr. Garcia-Sitton said. He added that for Canada, “Given the lifting of travel restrictions, the resumption of flights from China to Canada, and the consequent increased ease of student mobility, we are seeing a return to pre-pandemic global higher education enrolment levels.”

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