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Without face-to-face interaction, localised cultural experiences, or peer group support, many offshore international students are struggling through their Australian degrees from their home country.

Plagued by feelings of isolation, some students have dropped out of their studies, or even considered switching to open destinations like the UK and Canada, as revealed in IDP Connect’s International Student Crossroads research.

Quick to respond to this challenge, many Australian institutions have invested in offshore learning centres or study hubs in China, including ANU, RMIT, UWA, UTS, Swinburne, UNSW, Monash, and the University of Sydney Foundation Program.

Study Hubs are a physical learning space and extension of the university in China, where students can take advantage of fast Wi-Fi. free transport passes, and fresh coffee, all while creating burgeoning friendships with other students.

These pop up centres have become a bustling environment where students gather locally to focus on their studies, undertake research and receive academic or career support, including networking with industry professionals.

And an unexpected benefit has been the boost it has given students' wellbeing, as they interact with other students facing similar challenges of remote study and frustrating travel restrictions.

Students gather at the ANU Shanghai Study Hub

Why are universities setting up Learning Centres in China?

While not strictly falling under transnational education (TNE), learning centres are a costly investment for institutions, and some have even partnered with Chinese universities to get them off the ground such the University of Western Australia (UWA).

In early 2020 it was clear to UWA’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Global Partnerships, Tayyeb Shah, that their international students, particularly those in China, would need better support.

UWA chose to work with existing partners – Chinese universities – to set up seven UWA Learning Centres, which give their students the option of living on a university campus with Wi-Fi, academic support, meals and accommodation.

Apart from initial teething issues borne from differences in UWA student expectations (dormitories instead of private rooms, shared bathrooms, mixed Wi-Fi signal quality and food offerings) Mr Shah says the main benefit has been that students now feel more connected to UWA, despite classes being online.

Providing international students with flexibility and choice

“I think these learning centres are here to stay, that’s my personal view, even after COVID. It’s about giving students choice. It’s making a more flexible delivery model that gives students choice and actually makes it more affordable for them, as well.

"If you want to study online but in your home country, you can do that. You can get a quality higher education without leaving your country. Or, you can spend two years in learning centres and then come to Australia for a couple of years."

Learning centres are important, says Mr Shah, because they not only show the university is committed to the experiences of current students, but they also signal to prospective students, parents, school and university chancellors a university’s commitment to China.

“That we are not going to let our students suffer by themselves to study [using] varying qualities of Wi-Fi at home, that we were going to try as best we could to again, give them choice and flexibility, to give them options and support them as best we can. […] It cost us money, but we had to do it and it was important to send that signal all the way up to the Ministry of Education in China.”

ANU's Study Hub provides a quiet and supportive learning environment 

Study Hubs boost the remote learning experience

Switching to online learning for 22-year-old Australian National University (ANU) student Haoxuan Zhao last year was initially a huge challenge. In the middle of a Master of Business Information Systems degree, Haoxuan struggled with Zoom classes, missed face-to-face learning and found it difficult to make friends.

“These challenges were too hard for me to the extent that I have thought about changing to another university in Europe,” said Haoxuan. But then ANU opened its Shanghai Study Hub, a purpose-built facility located in Shanghai’s Australia House and operated in partnership with the Australian Chamber of Commerce (AustCham Shanghai). “[Thank] god the study hub appeared. I got a lot of local friends and found my spirit back.”

ANU’s China Liaison Director, Dr Amanda Barry, explains the Study Hubs purpose is to empower offshore students with their remote learning. “For ANU it’s really about providing a welcoming drop-in space with staff on the ground who can support students to commence or continue their remote studies with ANU.

“The space has comfortable study spaces, fast Wi-Fi, we have information there about ANU, our staff are trained generally in ANU systems and they’re very good at helping students navigate ANU online. It’s really about empowering the students to build their own skillset to engage with the university online.”

ANU brings Australia to Shanghai

ANU has thousands of students across China, with “three or four hundred” located in Shanghai itself. Travel grants are also available for non-Shanghai-based students to access the Hub. Last year, 150 different students accessed the Hub in person to varying degrees of frequency, says Dr Barry, while dozens more attended events hosted at the Hub.

Located in an older, residential/commercial neighbourhood of Shanghai, Australia House and the Hub offers a taste of Australia, too, with visiting students likely to run into Australian products, photographs and people.

Meanwhile, says Dr Barry, an unintentional benefit of putting all Hub programmes online has been that ANU students in China are feeling more connected, engaged and active, despite not being able to travel in-person to Canberra.

And although the Hub’s events program initially focused on careers (including input from ANU alumni and business members of AustCham), this year’s programme will be more skewed towards social get-togethers.

“We went in thinking we’ll provide a nice, quiet study space for students and that’ll be great – and it certainly was – but actually the number-one thing students have engaged and embraced has been the social aspect, the ability to meet fellow students and build networks and connection because online study can be very lonely, and it can be quite isolating.”

Past events have included free rooftop barbecues, learn-how-to-play Australian rules football sessions and even a student-organised Halloween party.

Sports and social events are held throughout the year at ANU's Study Hub

A place for social interaction, wellbeing and support

Nan Liu, 25, is an ANU Master of Business Information Systems student currently in her second year in Shanghai. She says her main reason for going to the Hub was to meet alumni and add some “campus feeling” to her studies.

“I have to say that it's not good to have a semester of online classes without meeting a professor or classmate,” she said. “It felt lonely, as if I had been abandoned by school, and as if I hadn't started graduate school at all.

“When I went to the Hub and became a regular, I began to meet new classmates and was happy to meet a few friends in the same major. In addition, the Hub often organises some interesting activities, during which I also get to know alumni of different grades and majors.

"I am very happy and I already have some sense of belonging to the school.” And the best thing about accessing the Hub? “Free freshly ground coffee and milk. This saves me a lot of money from spending AUD $3 a day on latte.”

What does the future hold for learning centres in China?

The ANU Shanghai Study Hub launched in August 2020 and IDP China has been playing a supporting role by spreading the word, encouraging existing ANU students to use it and telling future students about it.

Venice Yun, IDP China’s Destination Director for UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand says initial feedback from students has been positive. “Although it is still preferred to study face to face, the study hub provides a group study atmosphere and social opportunities.” Ms Yun, who is part of the Hub’s popular WeChat group, says students like to gather at the Hub for pizza, pastries or drinks.

While study hubs cannot replicate the university campus experience like-for-like, with the Australian border firmly closed for now, students want to feel connected to their institution and welcomed by Australia in other ways.

“[The Hub] shows a positive attitude from institutions to provide additional solutions and services to those who are banned by the travel restriction,” said IDP’s Venice Yun.

With more overseas learning centres planned for the future, including outside of China, it seems this unexpected but welcome response to the pandemic from dynamic institutions could be here to stay.

Sophie Tudor17 February 2021