Universities shut down across South and Southeast Asia
The closures came thick and fast this week after the number of cases began to rise several weeks after countries in North East Asia including Japan, South Korea, Singapore and China – where the virus originated – closed their universities in February and March. Universities have yet to reopen in any of the countries in the region, which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan.
With the spread of the virus to countries further south, India on 16 March declared a countrywide lockdown of schools and universities. It also closed its borders to all non-Indian nationals after the outbreak was declared an epidemic in several of its most populous states. The country’s first case was confirmed in a student who had returned from Wuhan University in China. Wuhan in Hubei province has been the epicentre of the outbreak.
Pakistan on 13 March closed all educational institutions until 5 April, with the education ministry saying it would decide on 27 March whether an extension would be necessary. In Bangladesh all education institutions were ordered shut on 17 March, to remain closed for two weeks.
Sri Lanka’s University Grants Commission also ordered all universities to close for two weeks after the country announced its first COVID-19 case on 11 March.
Malaysia, the most affected country in Southeast Asia with over 790 cases and two deaths by 18 March, when it closed its borders to visitors, banned travel overseas for its citizens, restricted internal movement and closed schools, universities and many businesses, at the start of a two-week partial lockdown.
Thailand on 17 March announced a two-week closure of all educational institutions until at least 31 March.
Similar announcements came from Indonesia – which announced its first two COVID-19 cases on 2 March. It had 227 cases by 18 March and the highest death rate from the virus in Southeast Asia at 19.
The Philippines, which also announced university closures this week, has had almost 200 cases and 17 fatalities from the virus as of 18 March.
The unprecedented shutdowns have left many foreign students stranded within their borders, with severe disruption as in some countries students have been asked to vacate university accommodation amid uncertainty and panic as major exams and graduation ceremonies have been postponed.
Indian institutions fear a prolonged shutdown and said they are still waiting for further clarity on the virus spread in the country. On Wednesday the Human Resource Development Ministry’s National Testing Agency postponed joint admissions exams for Indian Institutes of Technology and engineering colleges and other university exams until at least 31 March.
Students at many universities have had to move out of campus accommodation following instructions from the university authorities and only international students are allowed to stay at some hostels. But other institutions such as Osmania University, Hyderabad, in southern India has said it will cut off power and water supplies to hostels to force students to leave.
Ramgopal Rao, director of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, said in an advisory: “International students studying at IIT Delhi are currently residing in the hostels and would be permitted to stay in the hostels during the period and basic mess facilities would be provided on the campus.”
In the advisory, Rao highlighted that these were “special circumstances requiring special measures”.
Visitors will not be allowed and communal facilities have been suspended on campus.
Subhasis Chaudhuri, director of IIT Bombay, in Maharashtra state, which is the Indian state worst affected by the virus, with dozens of confirmed cases, said in an official statement this week: “All academic activities including research will remain suspended and only international students and students having medical and other emergencies will be allowed to remain in the hostel with special permission from the dean and limited messing [catering] facilitates would be provided to them.”
Students at Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, which draw their student bodies from all over the country, condemned the orders to clear campuses. The left-leaning All India Students’ Association, released a statement on Monday criticising the “ill-thought and anti-student decision” to send students home.
The statement said: “Making students residing in Delhi, one of the most connected cities, travel to all parts of the country will not only expose them to the virus but make them active carriers of the virus to different parts of the country.”
The decision will expose the students to a high risk of virus transmission through “unplanned travel” on crowded trains, buses and other transport, the statement further added.
Universities with a large number of foreign students said they were seeking guidance from the Ministry of External Affairs on how to deal with foreign students at a time when transport is disrupted and borders may be closed in the region.
Sri Lanka’s University Grants Commission has acknowledged that new admissions to universities could also be delayed due to the closures and public sector shutdowns as the government declared special holidays and has so far extended the new university registration deadline until 9 April.
This is the fourth occasion that all universities have been closed in Sri Lanka. In 2019, all universities and schools closed after the deadly blasts in churches and hotels that killed hundreds of people on Easter Sunday. The closure lasted a month.
In August 2012, the government closed all universities after a two-month lecturer strike, while in November 2013, universities closed for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.
“Students don’t have much idea about the virus and its effects. We taught them about the virus and asked them to minimise travelling, but they don’t take it seriously. The government did the best thing by closing down schools,” teacher Harshani Priyanka told University World News.
A female medical student said she was afraid as the numbers affected by the virus had been “growing exponentially over the past few days”. She added: “There is no plan to cover the missed lessons. Though we all miss lectures and clinical training, still we can study at home.”
Sri Lanka’s Department of Examinations says all exams scheduled for March are postponed until further notice, although the A-levels examinations this August would not be postponed.
The government has asked private tutors not to conduct classes. Prasad Chaminda Lokubalasooriya, a popular economics tutor in Gampaha town, close to the capital Colombo, said most students “are in a panic about the closure, assuming they won’t have time to cover the syllabus before the exam”.
He said a similar situation arose after the Easter attacks but they still managed to cover the syllabus.
“A-level students seem a bit nervous and panicky as they believe this shutdown will affect their studies,” he said.
Another popular accounting private tutor in Gampaha, Mahen Kumarage, said students should see this period as an opportunity to revise, not as a threat. “Following the government’s request, I cancelled all my classes. I have covered most of the syllabus. Now I requested students to stay home and do the revision.”
In Afghanistan the ongoing winter holidays in schools, universities and other public and private academic institutions have been extended for one more month, until 21 April. The new academic year was originally supposed to begin on 22 March. As of Wednesday 18 March, some 22 positive cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in the country.
“In order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the country and protect the health and well-being of the dear youth, the academic activities as well as the entrance exams for universities and private higher education institutions have been suspended until further notice,” said the official decree issued on 14 March.
A Kabul-based private university teacher, Mohammad Ismail Shakir, told University World News the new challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak were simply beyond the control of the Afghan authorities amid a grim political crisis and raging insurgency. “For the moment, shutting down academic centres as a precautionary measure is fine as long as there is strategy beyond the initial one-month period to keep the academic cycle running,” he stressed.
Shakir proposed mechanisms such as online teaching and other distance learning options or additional day or night sessions for current students to catch-up.
For many students, such as Obaid Ullah Gulyar, a fourth-year medical student at Spinghar Medical University, Kabul Branch, time is running out fast. “We are close to the crucial final phase of our studies, and all of sudden the university has been closed with no communication about future study plans, fee restructuring and all … it is chaotic,” he said.
Schools and universities were closed in Thailand from 18 March for two weeks after the number of COVID-19 cases more than doubled in just three days, 15-17 March, to 177.
But Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University and Mahidol University both suspended classes from 16 March after a staff member at Chulalongkorn’s faculty of law was confirmed infected with the virus on 15 March, while Mahidol shut down its Salaya campus after a student there was confirmed to have the virus. The university said it was screening people who had been in contact with the student and added it would disinfect the campus.
Students at Malaysian universities who remain on campus were told on 18 March not to attempt to travel back to their hometowns or countries even if they have purchased travel tickets. The higher education ministry has said all operations in public and private universities were fully closed except for essential services including water, electricity and food supplies. Cafeterias would only be open for take-away and delivery services.
The ministry advised these students to report to the institutions’ managements, saying the managements were responsible for their safety. Suspended classes and programmes will not be required to be replaced, the ministry said.
University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma wrote this report compiled from dispatches from UWN correspondents in the region.