China asks students to head back to overseas universities

Many students in China are now rushing to get plane tickets and settle paperwork in time for the next semester. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING – China’s government told students pursuing degrees at foreign universities that it is time to get back to class, another sign that life in the world’s second-biggest economy is returning to normal after three years of strict zero-Covid rules.

If students cannot get back to campus this semester, “please be sure to return to school on time for the next semester”, a government department responsible for handling overseas studies said in a statement on Sunday.

Officials also said they were ending temporary rules that allowed for degrees earned online to gain accreditation in China, which is necessary for landing a job at a state-owned enterprise or completing residency paperwork.

Normal life has been restarting in China since early December.

That was when Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government began dismantling its strategy for stamping out the virus, which had meant largely closed borders and strict lockdowns to contain the emergence of an outbreak.

In a sign of the changing times, spending patterns showed travellers swarmed China’s tourist spots during last week’s Chinese New Year holiday, while movie box-office sales rose.

The reopening of China’s borders on Jan 8 also meant it was finally possible for Chinese students to head back to overseas universities, from Asia and Europe to the US. Many students in China are now rushing to get scarce plane tickets and arrange visa and other paperwork in time for the next semester.

“China’s decision will encourage students to return to Australia, which is a good thing,” Ms Catriona Jackson, chief executive of the higher education advocacy group Universities Australia, said in a statement.

“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 added.

Mr Mark Tanner, managing director of Shanghai-based marketing firm China Skinny, which gauges Chinese consumer sentiment for clients, said the government’s move to push students back to overseas colleges may be part of a broader charm offensive by Beijing, which has been seeking to repair ties with the US and other nations in recent months.

“Countries such as Australia, the UK, New Zealand, the US and Canada that receive a relatively high portion of Chinese students will appreciate the additional spending from (the) students,” he said.

China sent some 372,000 students to the US in 2019 to 2020, though the figure fell to 290,000 in 2021 to 2022 amid the pandemic and souring ties between Beijing and Washington.

Host nations could see other benefits from the students’ return. 

“Where visas allow it, the extra students could provide extra labour for countries struggling to fill low-paying jobs,” Mr Tanner added. “All in all, it will provide a positive in the relationships with these countries.” BLOOMBERG

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.