Wuhan universities reopen after six-month suspension

Universities in China’s Hubei province, including the provincial capital of Wuhan where the COVID-19 virus outbreak first occurred, are to allow students to return in limited numbers from 8 June, according to notices issued by several universities.

Only Chinese students living in mainland China will be allowed back.

By contrast, Chinese students elsewhere, including from Taiwan and Hong Kong, and foreign students – including foreign students who remained in China during the pandemic – still do not know how long they will have to rely on limited online classes.

The move comes as Wuhan was declared free of the virus by city officials this week after mass testing of the city’s entire 10 million population between 14 May and 1 June, which showed no confirmed infections.

Hubei was the province worst affected by the virus and the move to reopen universities after almost six months – longer than other provinces – is seen as a highly symbolic moment in China’s battle against the virus, which spread globally, resulting in almost 6.2 million cases worldwide and 376,000 deaths as of 3 June.

Of China’s official figure of 83,021 confirmed cases since December 2019, when the first cases emerged in Wuhan, some 68,135 occurred in Hubei province. Wuhan itself accounted for 50,340 confirmed infections – 60% of the national total. Most of the country’s 4,634 deaths also occurred in Hubei province, which saw a travel ban and strict lockdown from 23 January.

China reported just one new coronavirus case, said to be a traveller from overseas, and four new asymptomatic COVID-19 cases on 2 June, the country's health commission said.

Around 80 universities and another 40 higher education institutions in Hubei will now reopen amid strict guidelines set out by the Ministry of Education and Hubei provincial authorities, starting with final-year students due to graduate this month.

Around 440,000 final-year students have been forced to study at home amid a strict 76-day lockdown that ended in early April, although some restrictions on city travel continue to be in place.

Universities in a number of provinces were able to reopen last month, with protective measures in place. However, universities in Hubei as well as Beijing, Hebei, Shandong and Heilongjiang provinces were still closed in May.

In mid-May almost 40% of students – more than 100 million school and university students – had returned to classes, according to official figures from the education ministry. High school students due to take the national university entrance exam or gaokao in July – postponed from early June – were the first to go back.

Hubei province has said senior high school students would sit the gaokao on 7-10 July, in line with other provinces. Priority was given to gaokao students to return to Hubei schools in early May.

University notices on return plans

Final-year bachelor and masters degree students at Wuhan University can return during the week of 8-11 June, with another batch, including doctoral students, to start the following week, the university said in a notice.

Postgraduate students not in their final year but needing to return for academic or laboratory research will need permission from the university to return from 8 June, it said.

The university said it will inform students about the exact time they can return, but those who do not receive a notice cannot return to campus.

Students will need to pass COVID-19 nucleic acid and antibody tests less than a week before their proposed return date, should not have travelled abroad or contacted people returning from abroad in the past two weeks, or travelled to COVID-19 ‘high risk’ regions. They will have to show ‘green’ health QR codes on their mobile phones.

Students who return to campus before they have their test results will be quarantined in a designated area of the campus, the university said.

Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan said in a notice that final-year undergraduate and postgraduate students could return in staggered time slots on 8 June, but teachers and faculty members were due back by 6 June and would undergo tests for the virus.

Central China Normal University also issued a notice to begin from 8 June.

Uncertain future

Graduating students currently completing their bachelor degrees have said their plans are up in the air after applications to universities in the province had gone unanswered by universities, and applications to foreign universities had been hampered by the postponing of key language proficiency tests including IELTS and TOEFL.

Jobs are also hard to come by. Although big companies have reopened in Wuhan, many smaller companies are struggling to do business and are not hiring, despite an announcement in April that the Hubei provincial government would provide special one-day subsidies to companies hiring new graduates if they provide work contracts of at least a year’s duration.

In Wuhan at least 60% of job vacancies in the city’s state-owned companies will be specially opened to new graduates, according to local authorities. Hubei province also announced a 20% expansion of recruitment of civil servants, to benefit graduates.

The provincial authorities have also announced financial support for those who graduated within the last five years to start their own companies.

Hiring normally takes place March-June, but most recruitment fairs were cancelled this year.