Wednesday, April 15, 2020

China Pivots to International e-Learning: Should Australia Follow?

China has announced that universities and colleges will offer online courses in English to international students due to COVID-19. This is a significant pivot for the little known Education Action Plan for the Belt and Road Initiative. This Plan is about boosting China's trade, but also has similarities to the Colombo Plan. During the Cold War, Australia provided free education to students from the region, as a form of soft diplomacy. Australia's Government, and universities, have so far made only tentative moves with international education. That may now have to change, as I suggested in 2017.

It would be tempting for Australian universities to assume that  online courses from China in English would be of low quality, and so not direct competition for on-campus Australian courses. However, Chinese institutions have been adapting the online techniques used by some of the world's leading universities. Also research over decades shows that graduates of online courses are at least as employable as those from on-campus.

Australian universities might decide to concentrate on quality advanced degrees, conceded the introductory and first degree market to online overseas institutions. However, graduates make very good online students, and someone who has done an introductory online course will think an online first and second degree perfectly normal.

The Australian automotive industry  assumed that Japan, and later Korea, were not a threat due to poor quality products. However, the quality improved, and we do not now have an Australian automotive industry. Australian universities need to not make the same mistake.

For several years I have been attending international technical education conferences run by, or with large attendance of Chinese academics. They reported steady progress with scaling up offerings of education in China to international students from developing nations.

As well as students studying in China, the Plan also envisaged campuses in the student's country, built and staffed with Chinese help. While China has some large online universities with decades of experience, online learning was not mentioned in the Plan.

Here is what I suggested in 2017:
"Education is Australia’s third-largest export and the government's "National Strategy for International Education 2025" points out that Moodle is an Australian product serving a global market and identifies on-line learning as an area for growth (Australian Government, 2016). However, Australia's universities are predominantly set up for students traveling to Australia to study on campus, and the government strategy provides little practical guidance for changing this. International tensions could disrupt the flow of students to Australia very quickly. Competition from universities in other countries and DE is likely to increase. We can produce quality on-line and blended programs to remain competitive, based on demonstrated success and research results." (Worthington, 2017).


Mo Jingxi, Millions to benefit from online vocational training, Apr 14, 2020, China Daily, State Council, China.

Education Action Plan for the Belt and Road Initiative , Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China, July 2016

Worthington, T. (2014, August 23).  Chinese and Australian Students Learning to Work Together Online: Proposal to Expand the New Colombo Plan to the Online Environment. Paper to be presented at the 9th International Conference on Computer Science & Education (ICCSE). Vancouver, Canada. URL Preprint available at:

Worthington, T. (2017). Digital Teaching In Higher EducationDesigning E-learning for International Students of Technology, Innovation and the Environment (book).

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