Coronavirus: Universities have duty of care to students

The coronavirus outbreak has hit international education mobility at the Lunar New Year, a time of heightened travel within China. Seeking to prevent the spread of the virus, countries have been posting travel restrictions and barring entry to most foreign nationals who have recently visited China, including students and scholars.

Chinese students are the largest international student population in many countries – 389,548 are enrolled in institutions in the United States, 152,591 in Australia and 106,530 in the United Kingdom.

It is still difficult to estimate the global impact of travel for the Lunar New Year holiday, but in Australia alone, more than 100,000 Chinese international students returned home for the celebration and are now unable to return to campus.

Acting with ‘sense’

As the death toll in China rises every day, students on US campuses have been showing signs of fear and anxiety about the possibility of getting infected. Administrators have quickly taken action, cancelling studying abroad programmes to China and announcing self-quarantine measures.

Nonetheless, increasing anxiety has sparked xenophobia, Sinophobia and anti-China sentiment towards students of Chinese and Asian descent.

With cases of confirmed infections increasing to over 40,000 at home, Chinese students worldwide are especially cautious, often wearing face masks for self-protection. But they have come under verbal insult or even brutal physical attack for wearing masks in Sheffield, UK, in Berlin, Germany and in New York City.

Many institutions have sent out health warnings to campus students in neutral tones, hoping to counter misinformation and bias and instead disseminate the facts. This overly rational response to the crisis has led to some elite universities facing criticism for insensitivity towards their students as they order students to self-isolate after trips to China or list xenophobia as a “common reaction”.

For instance, stranded Chinese students are reported to be feeling deeply upset and “like cash cows” after Australia’s coronavirus travel ban.

Acting with ‘sensitivity’

This is a critical time for faculty, administrators and student affairs professionals to reach out to both international and domestic students who are fearful on campus.

Many of the 928,090 Chinese international students abroad have family, friends and relatives living and working in Wuhan or other cities in mainland China. Many Chinese families have made significant emotional and financial sacrifices to send their children to study overseas.

Each of them may know someone affected by the new coronavirus. It might be someone who works on the frontline as a member of the Chinese medical staff, who is willingly sacrificing his or her health. It might be someone who has been working round the clock on the family and community quarantine measure. In a less risky scenario, it might be someone isolated at home for weeks in self-protection. Cities across the 28 provinces have cut off public transportation partially or completely.

With the development of technology and social media, Chinese international students can diligently monitor current events and be closely connected with their loved ones. However, besides sending masks and supplies to friends and family in China, these students can do little amidst national sadness, grief and uncertainty.

International student mobility and numbers are crucial quantifiable indicators of world institutional reputation, status and revenue. The economic impact of this tragedy cannot be underestimated and international higher education as an export contributes significantly to many OECD countries’ economies.

In 2018, international students contributed US$45 billion, US$25.85 billion, US$25.11 billion to the US, UK and Australian economies respectively.

However, instead of concentrating on their potential loss of revenue, universities should be sensitive and compassionate toward their student population at the current time. Christopher Ziguras and Ly Tran have suggested several helpful campus responses, for example, “support structures for starting and continuing Chinese students, including extended academic and welfare support, counselling, special helplines and coronavirus-specific information guidelines”.

For those students who are unable to make it to the campus on time for the start of term, specific administrative assistance or deferral regarding class registration, tuition and fee payment, accommodation, visa issues, etc, would relieve much stress, as many mainland China businesses and public transport have shortened their operating hours, making life and travel difficult.

It is essential that campus responses focus on educating the campus community on the facts surrounding this crisis. More importantly, universities should be sensitive in such a calamity and seek to calm fear and anxiety, standing with their students to fight prejudice and bias and creating intellectual and educational spaces that are inclusive and humane.

Lizhou Wang is a research assistant and doctoral student at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States. E-mail: