Asian universities close again amid new coronavirus wave

Amid a new COVID-19 wave in South and Southeast Asia and fears of a highly transmissible deadly variant from India that has devastated that country and overwhelmed the Indian health system, universities in countries neighbouring India have reversed plans to re-open universities and colleges and brought in new lockdowns.

Students in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan now fear they face another disrupted academic year and lost education, saying their governments have barely tackled problems in accessing online education experienced during the first wave. And they say universities are no better prepared than last year to cope with the new wave, despite plans to vaccinate students and provide other facilities.

Grappling with a deadlier third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the Pakistan government has again closed universities and other educational institutions until 23 May.

The latest COVID-19 wave has also halted Bangladesh’s plan to re-open educational institutions, which have been closed since March 2020.

In Sri Lanka all universities and schools will remain closed until 31 May with the government imposing a strict lockdown during 13-17 May and imposing restrictions on travel between provinces until 30 May, which will mean out-of-province students cannot get to campuses before then.

In several countries including Afghanistan and Bangladesh, officials are pinning their hopes on vaccination campaigns in order to re-open universities, but in many areas these are behind schedule.


Universities and other educational institutions in Pakistan will be closed until 23 May, and the federal education ministry announced the postponement of academic examinations until 15 June as the coronavirus infection rate has grown alarmingly over the past two months, with the average mortality rate near 2% of reported cases, Ameen Amjad Khan reports from Islamabad.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Pakistan in February 2020, the country has, so far, reported more than 870,700 coronavirus cases and 19,200 deaths. Amid shockwaves from its hard-hit neighbour India, Pakistan authorities have called in army troops to aid in controlling the pandemic, and extended the closure of educational institutions, which had been due to open in the first week of May.

Announcing the deployment of the army on 23 April, Prime Minister Imran Khan said in an address to the nation: “I am appealing to you to obey restrictions so that we don’t have to take steps that India is taking which means imposing lockdowns.” However, a week-long lockdown throughout the country was announced on 8 May.

Federal Minister of Education Shafqat Mahmood, after attending a 27 April emergency meeting of the National Command and Operation Center, Pakistan’s apex committee dealing with COVID-19 related guidelines and restrictions, said during a press conference in Islamabad: “Exams have been postponed until 15 June to address health concerns of students and parents. The postponement may be extended further depending on the spread of the disease.”

He also tweeted that Cambridge Assessment International Education (CAIE) exams would be postponed until the last quarter of this year for all grades with the exception of school leavers requiring it for admission to overseas universities.

He was earlier criticised for failing to bring in school-assessed grades for Pakistani students taking CAIE exams. Students had to sit physical exams in the last week of April when coronavirus cases were at a peak after a Pakistan high court dismissed a students’ plea against physical examinations.

A CAIE lawyer told the court that the Pakistani government had approached Cambridge too late to opt for school-assessed grades.

Little has changed since the first wave

This is the third closure of academic institutions since March 2020 when a national level lockdown was enforced in Pakistan.

However, the learning and examination system in Pakistan has made little progress, according to students who still complain of inadequate resources for online learning, lack of basic facilities such as computers and internet connectivity, lack of online learning resources in remote areas of the country and the burden of full tuition fees despite not having physical classes on the campuses.

“Nothing has changed since last year, no system developed for uninterrupted education during the pandemic; only confusion has increased as the authorities are dealing with education on a temporary basis,” Khalid Umer, a postgraduate biochemistry student at Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University told University World News.

Hina Rubab, a final-year student of anthropology at Balochistan University, Quetta, told University World News: “When the government last year started so-called online classes, they did not even think how they would administer online examinations. Students were blamed when they protested against non-availability of basic needs for online learning.

“Now universities are exposed for not having any infrastructure for administering online examinations and that is why they are postponing exams,” she said, adding that she feared that without an online examination system, students might lose an academic year if the pandemic persists.

However, Minister Shafqat Mahmood in a tweet last week said: “If university examinations are further postponed, we will devise a mechanism to save the academic year of the students.”

Miftah Ismail, former minister and secretary-general of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) party in Sindh province, told University World News: “It is [because of] sheer lack of planning that students are faced with mental agony. The government lacks a policy on how to run the education system in the country during a pandemic like COVID-19. Even though over a year has passed, they are unable to formulate such a policy.”

Miftah said the government had not taken the concerns of the education sector’s stakeholders onboard, nor provided extra resources to universities to develop a system for online examinations.

Muhammad Mansoor Ahmed, vice-chancellor of Islamabad-based Capital University of Science and Technology, told University World News: “Although the situation related to online learning and examinations is at [the same] stage as last year, progress is possible if resources are provided to universities.”

Bangladesh – Waiting for vaccines

Bangladesh’s most prominent university, the University of Dhaka, planned to re-open student dormitories from 17 May, the first time since the government suspended educational activities in all institutions on 18 March 2020.

However, on 29 April the university’s provost standing committee, which includes provosts who manage university accommodation, decided not to re-open dormitories until all students have been vaccinated, Mushfique Wadud reports from Dhaka.

Earlier, on 22 February, Bangladesh Education Minister Dipu Moni said the government planned to re-open all public and private universities on 24 May. According to that plan, dormitories would open a week earlier, on 17 May. Though other universities are yet to announce their decisions, educational officials said they might follow the University of Dhaka and delay re-opening.

University of Dhaka Pro Vice-Chancellor ASM Maksud Kamal told University World News on Tuesday that the university’s decision was taken in consideration of the health and safety of students as the COVID situation worsened in the country. He said some 30,000 University of Dhaka students had registered for the vaccination, but the university is yet to ensure availability of vaccines.

“We will take initiatives to re-open dormitories after assessing the COVID situation and once we are certain about getting the vaccine,” he said.

Bangladesh faced a vaccine shortage after India suspended vaccine exports. The Serum Institute of India pharmaceutical company in India, which is licensed to produce the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine was supposed to dispatch 30 million doses by June. However, it stopped the supply after sending seven million vaccine doses to Bangladesh.

After India’s vaccine export ban, Bangladesh turned to China and Russia for vaccines. On 12 May around 500,000 vaccines arrived in Bangladesh from China, with Foreign Minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen and Health Minister Zahid Maleque receiving the vaccines from Chinese Ambassador Li Jiming at a guest house in Dhaka.

Although Dhaka is holding online classes and mid-term examinations, it has not held year-final examinations.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, at least 12,005 have died due to COVID-19 in Bangladesh as of 11 May, according to the health department. Of those, over 1,000 have died in just the past 16 days, with Bangladesh seeing a spike in April, with daily new cases far surpassing the first wave in June. A total of 776,257 cases have been registered officially since early 2020.

Concern about Indian variant

On 8 May the Bangladesh Directorate General of Health Services reported that the country had detected its first case of a highly infectious coronavirus variant known as the Indian variant. Nasima Sultana, the additional director general at the directorate, told a press conference that six cases of the Indian variant had been detected in the country. All were recent arrivals from neighbouring India and were in isolation.

On 25 April Bangladesh sealed its border with India for 14 days as the COVID-19 situation worsened in India. On 8 May the government extended the border closure for another 14 days.

The second COVID wave in India has impacted Bangladeshi students at Indian universities, who are also unable to return to Bangladesh due to the border closure.

Partha Saha, a computer science and engineering student at Lovely Professional University in Punjab in India, told University World News that he was worried about the future.

“I am now doing online classes. I was planning to go to India and start in-person classes, but lockdown there changed everything,” he said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

Dozens of Bangladeshi students studying in Indian universities were stranded, he said. “Some of my friends told me that they are running out of money and are worried because they do not know when they can return home,” Partha said, adding that the university had extended help but without a special flight to Bangladesh, it would not be possible for them to return home.

Sri Lanka

All universities and schools have once again closed in Sri Lanka due to a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Sri Lankan government requested all higher education institutions to remain closed until 31 May as a precaution against student transmission, Dinesh De Alwis reports from Colombo.

After the first wave in early 2020, the government re-opened universities in stages with strict health guidelines, but had to close and re-open them due to repeated COVID-19 waves.

Now Sri Lanka is currently experiencing its highest number of cases during its third wave which started on 21 April after the Sinhala and Tamil New Year festival. Sri Lanka has more than 25,000 active cases and more than 850 deaths to date, according to the health ministry.

A lockdown was imposed from 13-17 May, and from 12 May the government imposed inter-provincial travel restrictions until 30 May and island-wide night time travel restrictions. So far, more than 160 villages with high caseloads have been placed under lockdown. All functions, parties and events are banned.

Several major exams have been postponed including university entrance (A-level) examinations scheduled for August, now postponed until October. GCE Ordinary Level Examinations have been postponed until January 2022.

The university admissions process for the new academic year is likely to be delayed due to lockdowns, travel restrictions and limited staff in offices. University degree conferring ceremonies have been postponed until further notice at several universities.

“Our university is conducting online lectures as usual, but our clinical training is postponed until further notice. This pandemic situation has brought extra stress to all our lives and there’s not even a slight hope for a mask-free day in the near future,” Ruwanthi, a female medical faculty undergraduate, told University World News.

Universities need adequate healthcare

As the caseload is growing daily and hospitals are reaching capacity, the Sri Lankan government is considering using university buildings as COVID-19 intermediate care centres.

Wasantha Mudalige, convener of the Inter University Students’ Federation, said: “Universities have been closed for more than a year. Universities opened for a short period after the first wave, but it only lasted a few weeks. Education officials haven’t launched any proper healthcare programme to re-open universities so far. The administration of many universities has failed to ensure students healthcare.”

He added that a number of universities like Kelaniya, Ruhuna, Moratuwa, Sabaragamuwa and Rajarata had cases of infected students due to inadequate safety programmes and urged the government to quickly expand health facilities, ambulances and PCR testing in universities.

According to an Asian Development Bank report last year, Sri Lanka made a remarkable transition to online tertiary education during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 90% of student respondents were able to access online education, according to students surveyed.

However, the report said lack of laptops and consistently stable, high-speed internet access were the most significant challenges for students. More than 70% of students faced connection issues during online teaching and learning. The government has not addressed the issue, students said.

Afghanistan – Entrance exams disrupted

Over 200,000 university hopefuls will sit the highly competitive nationwide university entrance exams known as the Kankor in three phases in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan. However, many students complain of having little or no preparation for the exam due to lapses in studies caused by COVID-19, Shadi Khan Saif reports from Kabul.

Afghanistan only briefly re-opened schools for all grades in October 2020 during the first wave of the pandemic. They closed again in December for winter holidays until March.

Afghanistan is currently facing a third wave of the pandemic, with confirmed cases so far exceeding 62,000 and the corresponding deaths hitting more than 2,700 this month.

Head of Afghanistan’s National Committee of Examinations Abdul Qadeer Khamoosh told University World News that the first round of the tests had been conducted successfully. “Up to 90,000 students, with a large number of female students, participated in the ‘Kankor’ [university entrance tests] in 25 provinces,” he said.

The second phase begins in the nine remaining provinces later this month and will take place in the capital Kabul next month.

Students like Emal Khogyani in Kabul barely studied for four months and only managed to complete a couple of chapters of the syllabus for each subject.

“Pupils could not study until the end of the academic year and not everyone could properly follow the lessons on TV because there were no repeats or options to ask questions for clarity,” Khogyani told University World News, referring to lessons aired on the state broadcaster during the pandemic.

Afghanistan’s education ministry has acknowledged that this year’s school curriculum was not fully taught. It promised this would be remedied next year.


In neighbouring Iran, preparations for the forthcoming presidential polls have overshadowed everything else. Iran’s education minister, Mohsen Haji-Mirzaei, was quoted by the state-owned IRNA news agency as saying that distance learning continued across Iran for the nearly 12.7 million registered students through the country’s ‘Shad’ system of e-learning.

This year’s university entrance tests are due to commence from June. However, according to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, a coalition of Iranians living abroad, many students gathered in 15 cities in Iran to protest against taking in-person exams instead of online exams during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The regime’s repressive measures, such as sending threatening text messages to students and contacting their parents in various cities, failed to prevent the rallies,” it said.

Iranian authorities claim to have provided internet access to students living in remote parts of the country.

As one of the worst affected countries globally, the overall COVID-19 cases in Iran this month shot up to 2.7 million with over 75,000 deaths so far. On 25 April it registered more than 25,000 new cases, a record for a single day in Iran. Flights from India and Pakistan were suspended from 24 April amid concerns over the Indian variant, and delays in securing vaccines.