International student flows extend fallout from coronavirus outbreak

With internationalisation of higher education, the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak – combined with larger than usual international student movements to and from China during the January holiday period – has meant that a large number of universities in different countries have had to bring in contingency measures to help control the spread of disease.

The measures include delaying the start of the university semester in China and Hong Kong and in other countries in Asia such as Singapore; postponing campus orientation events for new students at universities that normally start the academic year in March such as in South Korea; and specific quarantine advice for returning students in countries including Australia, Thailand and elsewhere.

In Australia, the universities of New South Wales, Sydney and Wollongong are allowing students unable to leave China the option to defer their studies or enrol late. Some University of Sydney students facing ‘exceptional circumstances’ could have their tuition fees refunded, the university said.

Foreign students at universities in Hubei province near the epicentre of the virus outbreak and Chinese students returning to universities overseas have been particularly affected, with preparations underway in some countries to evacuate them to their home countries.

Chinese students make up the largest contingent of foreign students abroad. Although only very few were in the affected area in and around the city of Wuhan in Hubei, many returned to China for the Lunar New Year break in January and are now expected to fly back.

Within China, the virus has spread rapidly during the second half of January with the number of confirmed cases rising from 6,000 on 29 January to over 9,800 by 31 January, and around 62 registered cases in other Asian countries, including at least a dozen cases each in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and Thailand.

The official death toll in China as of 31 January was put at more than 213. Wuhan saw its first coronavirus case in early December, according to reports.

Universities were seen as particularly vulnerable to the spread of disease, diplomats in Beijing said. The large numbers of Chinese students at universities around the region meant that the risk of the virus spreading through the student route was seen as high in Asia.

But many countries were keen to avoid use of the word ‘quarantine’ for returning Chinese and other students from the affected area, which could have meant even more widespread semester delays and other measures in some countries in Asia.

Delayed semester start

China’s Ministry of Education, in an announcement on 28 January, said the start of the spring semester was postponed for schools and universities, without providing a new start date. The ministry said only that institutions would reopen on “a case-by-case basis”.

School administrators had been instructed to “require students not to go out, not to gather, and not to hold or participate in centralised activities”, the statement added.

The Ministry of Education announced on 27 January that English proficiency examinations for Chinese students to apply to foreign universities would be cancelled nationwide during February. The exams include the International English Language Testing System or IELTS, the Test of English as a Foreign Language or TOEFL, the Graduate Record Examination or GRE, and the Graduate Management Admission Test or GMAT.

These cancellations are likely to have a knock-on effect on applications for the 2020 to 2021 academic year, although it is thought likely that students will be able take the tests later, universities said.

Foreign students at universities in Wuhan and even further away in Shanghai said campuses have been deserted at a time when students would normally be returning after the Lunar New Year on 25 January.

Tsinghua University in Beijing, one of China’s top institutions, announced that it would delay the beginning of classes for its spring semester, originally scheduled to start on 17 February, “to reduce the risk of transmission and ensure the health and safety of every student and staff”. No new start date was given.

The cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong have also delayed the start of the university semester to 17 February, although student campus accommodation remains open. Several Hong Kong universities, including the University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Hong Kong Baptist University, further extended their closure until 2 March.

The Chinese-American Duke Kunshan University in Jiangsu province said in a 25 January statement that it had decided to postpone all classes in all programmes until 17 February.

“We will also be restricting access to our campus to essential personnel only. All other members of the Duke Kunshan community – students, faculty who do not reside on campus, and staff – and outside visitors will not be permitted to enter before Saturday 15 February,” the statement said.

“As we adapt to developments surrounding the coronavirus, Duke Kunshan may be required to revise class schedules further,” the university added.

“Members of the Duke Kunshan community who travelled home for Spring Festival [Lunar New Year] are advised to stay there, while those who travelled to a third destination are advised to stay where they are or return home, unless they are from Hubei province.”

In another statement on 26 January, the university said: “Students residing on campus are not allowed to leave unless they need to travel to the hospital.”

Foreign students in Wuhan

Registration for the new semester at universities in Wuhan has been delayed by two weeks for international students but has been postponed until early March for Chinese students.

Wuhan, with a population of 11 million and several thousand foreign students, has a dozen universities and a number of colleges. Authorities have extended transport bans to 17 cities around Wuhan in an effort to control the virus, restricting travel for around 56 million people in Hubei province.

Wuhan University’s international student office said it had set up five temperature check sites at entrances to international student housing and had acquired supplies to combat the spread of the disease. It was advising students not to leave the campus or meet for group activities.

Students contacted at the Wuhan University campus said it was unclear how long the lockdown, which is confining them to their hostels, would last.

Students reached by phone said Wuhan University, which normally has 50,000 students on campus and some 3,500 foreign students from around 120 countries, was largely deserted this week at a time when students would normally start returning from the New Year holiday.

A Bangladeshi student at Wuhan University contacted by University World News said Chinese students were going door to door at campus dormitories asking foreign students if they had a fever.

“They told us we should always wear masks, wash hands etc, and if we need to go to a hospital, to avoid going to Hankou,” she said, referring to a part of the city where hospital authorities appeared to be overwhelmed by the caseload.

Around 500 Bangladeshi students are among those in Wuhan.

A Pakistani engineering student at Wuhan University of Science and Technology, who gave his name as Ahmed Ali, said foreign students were given facemasks and preventative medicines by the university. “It is hard to know what is happening, so I am worried. There is no transport anywhere in the city,” he said.

A Thai student in Wuhan wrote on Facebook that students barely had enough food and were worried about contracting the virus. She called on her government to evacuate them.

Thai Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Busadee Santipitaks said this week that the ministry was “in constant contact” with Thai students and communities, putting the number of Thai students in the Wuhan-Hubei area at 54. She said checks with Hubei province's foreign office found that restaurants and shops at the university were “open as normal”.

Thai Air Force Commander ACM Manat Wongwat was quoted by Bangkok Post newspaper as saying that up to four C-134 planes with medical staff were on stand-by to evacuate Thai people.

In Thailand itself, Soranit Silatham, a permanent secretary in the Ministry of Higher Education, said there were about 7,000 Chinese students across Thailand and many had returned to their hometowns in China during the New Year festival.

Earlier, the ministry asked Chinese students to delay their return to Thailand by at least two weeks as a precaution. Thailand has registered more than a dozen coronavirus infections, the highest official number outside China.

Evacuations mooted

According to the Indonesian Foreign Ministry there are 428 Indonesian students in Wuhan, 1,280 in Beijing and 849 in Shanghai. Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said that since December about 90% of Indonesians studying in Wuhan had already left the Chinese city and returned to Indonesia for the Lunar New Year holiday.

The president of the Indonesian Student Association of China, Nur Musyafak, said Indonesian citizens – including students – want to get out of the city. But Indonesian officials said different countries were awaiting approval from the Chinese authorities that “evacuation can be done”.

India is understood to have requested China to permit more than 250 Indian students stuck in Wuhan to leave the city. About 700 Indian students, mostly studying medicine, are in various universities in Wuhan and its surrounding areas – but the majority had left for home for the New Year holidays.

The Press Trust of India news agency reported that India had requested the Chinese Foreign Ministry and local officials in Wuhan to consider making arrangements for the Indian students to leave.

According to Reuters news agency, Morocco initiated the repatriation of 100 Moroccan nationals, mostly students, on 27 January – one of the earliest groups of foreign students to leave.

Other countries arranging to have citizens and students flown out include Japan, Spain, Britain, the Netherlands, the United States and Australia.

The Sri Lankan embassy in Beijing said a group of 21 students had left for Sri Lanka on 27 January. An evacuation process was underway that included students from Sichuan and various other parts of China being transported to airports by bus, said a statement from the president’s office in Colombo.

Another 30 students studying in the city of Nanying in Hebei province would be joining them. “Discussions are currently underway with the Chinese government to bring back Sri Lankan students in Wuhan, which is currently locked down,” the president’s office said. Sri Lanka also announced that it was making arrangements to return 860 Sri Lankan students, of whom 32 are in Wuhan.

The Afghan government has asked China to keep its 60 students in Wuhan rather than send them back.

With travel lockdown measures imposed by the Chinese authorities in Wuhan itself, most evacuations so far have been from surrounding areas. Bilateral negotiations between Beijing and several other countries are underway to permit evacuations from the city.

Beginning with British and United States evacuations of citizens from Wuhan on Thursday, the exodus of students is likely to pick up, a Western diplomat in Beijing said.

Leave of absence for returning students

Universities in Singapore and South Korea, and Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, have said staff and students returning from overseas should take a “leave of absence for two weeks”.

All three countries host large numbers of Chinese students, many of whom took the trip back home over the Lunar New Year break.

South Korea, with more than 69,000 students from China – 43% of all its international students – has broader measures in place.

Top institutions Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University are cancelling or considering postponing campus orientation events for new students so that new students can delay travelling from China.

At Seoul’s Korea University and Yonsei University, Korean language classes for foreign students were cancelled this week. Ewha Woman’s University, Seoul, said it had cancelled all group campus tours, which are popular with Chinese visitors.

Korea’s education ministry said that it was discussing with universities how to handle upcoming graduation ceremonies, which take place in the coming weeks.

On 27 January Singapore’s Ministry of Education said students and teachers returning from China to Singapore after 15 January would have to take a “compulsory leave of absence” lasting 14 days from the day after their arrival in Singapore, mirroring the coronavirus incubation period.

Singapore's Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said that apart from schools, public universities would follow government guidelines and the ministry advised private institutions to “follow the same protocol”.

Ong said the leave of absence advisory was different from a quarantine order as individuals are not legally required to comply. But it “allows the Ministry of Education to better mitigate the potential risks posed by travel in our schools and institutions, while enabling them to continue with the usual learning and other activities”, the Singaporean ministry said.

Ong said additionally that schools and universities would not schedule organised trips to China until the end of March.

Singapore has seen a handful of coronavirus cases so far. Ong said this week that three hostels at the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University or NTU and Singapore Management University are being vacated and repurposed as government quarantine facilities.

Students – including foreign students – will be transferred to other hostels on campus, he stated. Students at NTU said on Wednesday that they were already required to move out of the designated hostels to other accommodation.

This article was amended on 31 January 2020 to include revised figures for the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in China.