Vaccinations for students going abroad scuppered by shortages

Several states in India have decided to prioritise vaccinations for students going to foreign countries to pursue studies. But with a shortage of vaccines, inoculation is patchy. Students also face uncertainty over foreign study plans as the government, after weeks of delays, finally cancelled this year’s main school-leaving examinations.

“With a few states in India prioritising vaccination for students going for study abroad, it will certainly help many students achieve their study abroad dream. We support prioritised vaccines for study abroad students,” Vivek Jain, chief business officer of online education portal, told University World News.

He added that prioritising vaccinations for students was a good move in view of vaccine shortages in India. “We know that there is vaccine shortage, and each state will prioritise the more needy or vulnerable groups.”

The southern states of Kerala, Karnataka and Telangana and the western state of Maharashtra, which all send large numbers of students abroad, have begun inoculation of students who have confirmed admission to foreign universities and colleges.

Some states have asked students expecting to go abroad in the coming months to contact officials in their districts and produce admission confirmation letters from a foreign university, in order to be vaccinated.

Aditya Thackeray, a minister in the Maharashtra state government, said that on 28 May he requested municipal authorities in major cities in the state to make vaccination arrangements for students due to fly abroad for studies.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, around 60,000 students a year travelled from Maharashtra for international study.

Thackeray also said via Twitter, after students complained that visa offices remained closed, that the state government’s department of protocol would “consult with [diplomatic] missions of destination countries to ensure that our students from Maharashtra who have obtained admissions abroad can fly safe and smooth to unis abroad”.

In Karnataka state, the National Health Mission in the state capital Bengaluru (Bangalore) amended the list of preferential groups for COVID-19 inoculation by adding four more groups. Among them are students going abroad for higher education and those who want to travel outside the country for employment.

At least 2,000 students have applied for preferential vaccination in Kerala, according to the state health ministry.

Reduced time for second dose

Many state governments have also decided to give the second COVID-19 vaccine dose within six weeks of the first dose, instead of the 12- to 16-week gap recommended by the country’s health ministry.

The gap between the first and second doses of Covishield, the main vaccine manufactured in India, has been relaxed as many students plan to travel abroad as early as July or August. Many were concerned that they would not have proper immunity in time.

Students said the move to prioritise them had come as a big relief, as they could not go abroad without being vaccinated. They said in the near future countries like the United States and Australia could require vaccine ‘passports’.

Vaccination is not yet compulsory for foreign student arrivals in most countries in Europe and for the US and Australia, but students fear this could change at any time.

Sumeet Jain, co-founder of Yocket – a Delhi-based study abroad consultant – said there is no vaccine passport yet. “We are seeing that to travel to the US you only need a negative RT-PCR test but not a vaccine,” he said.

“Many universities [in the US] are providing vaccines themselves as well. Most of the students are not worried about travelling. We have seen some great interest among students to travel abroad for studying,” he said.

Severe vaccine shortage

However, many students said the outlook for vaccination of students was unclear as India faces a severe vaccine shortage. The country’s phase-3 vaccination drive for people aged 18 to 44 had hardly gained momentum when it had to be suspended in many states, with reports emerging from some that vaccine centres were shutting down or turning people away as supplies ran out.

Minister Thackeray of Maharashtra state government said free walk-in vaccinations had been arranged in three Mumbai hospitals on 31 May to 2 June for students holding documents for admission to foreign universities. With admission to foreign universities and a lack of vaccination affecting students and careers, “we are duty bound to vaccinate them in the required time”.

However, students complained that on 31 May, hundreds waited at Mumbai’s Cooper Hospital for a ‘walk-in’ vaccine – only to be sent home because Cooper had only 40 doses available.

School-leaving exams cancelled

After weeks of uncertainty and stress for students, the government on 1 June announced the cancellation of the country’s main Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) school exams.

“Government of India has decided to cancel the Class-12 CBSE Board Exams. After extensive consultations, we have taken a decision that is student-friendly, one that safeguards the health as well as future of our youth,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted.

The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that the decision to call off the exams had been taken in view of uncertain conditions due to COVID-19 and feedback from various stakeholders.

The government said that in case some students wished to take the exams, such an option would be provided to them by the exam board “as and when the situation becomes conducive”. Many state-level boards are also likely to cancel school-leaving exams – the governments of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana and Uttarakhand have already announced the scrapping of exams.

With constant postponements, students had faced the prospect of exams being pushed to August with results not declared until September – too late for students applying to universities in India and abroad. Students said foreign universities had made conditional offers requiring final-year transcripts by July or August, with universities in the United Kingdom requiring them by early September.

In the absence of exams, there are various options to decide evaluation criteria for the class 12 board exam result. According to some reports, students may be given marks on the basis of their exam scores in previous years. However, a clear decision is still pending – continuing the uncertainty for many.

Yocket’s Sumeet Jain said cancellation of school exams was a good move in a way, as it removed the uncertainty over when they would be held. “Students were worried that these exams were getting postponed,” he said.

“They constantly needed to prepare for the exams and the results were likely to get further delayed. At least now they can plan their further education abroad with whatever reports they get.”

He said students could still apply for foreign universities. “There will be assessment without the exam route. Most of the universities abroad would accept this. It will be university specific, so it can’t be generalised.”

Sumeet Jain added: “This is not a local phenomenon; it is all across the world. So I assume that this should not be an issue.” The International Baccalaureate organisation has already cancelled exams for this year.

Vivek Jain of said that “considering the unprecedented COVID situation, the government of India has decided to cancel Class 10 and 12 board exams. In this situation, students who are still planning to study abroad should complete their vaccination course for their own safety. Also, as students travel to their destination countries, it is best to get vaccinated to reduce the risk.”

University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma contributed to this article.