More HE disruption as new wave of COVID-19 hits Asia

A new coronavirus wave across Southeast Asia, particularly affecting Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Myanmar and Thailand – countries that did not suffer badly from the first waves in 2020 and earlier this year – has prevented the re-opening of universities and disrupted higher education for the second year running.

With some students now in their second year of online-only courses, many are calling for tuition fee rebates, as well as financial assistance, as the latest waves have badly hit the economies in these countries at the same time that they are battling to get people vaccinated, but others are simply demanding more clarity over the return to normal lessons.

Indonesia: campuses used as isolation centres

As the number of COVID-19 cases in Indonesia soared to an unprecedented number last month – with 467 deaths in a single day on 26 June and unofficial figures putting the number near a thousand – President Joko Widodo announced what is called PPKM, the Indonesian acronym for the Imposition of Restrictions on People’s Activities, or lockdowns till the end of July, Kafil Yamin reports from Bandung.

In one day this week Indonesia authorities reported nearly 57,000 new cases – a record daily total and seven times more than a month before in the populous nation. Indonesia had low levels of coronavirus until January this year, but in June and July hospitals and public clinics were increasingly overwhelmed with the rising number of patients. Many do not have enough oxygen supplies.

With the rising number of cases within the community, many areas are becoming vulnerable to the spread of the virus. University campuses are seen as a good option for isolation.

Students and teachers left university campuses even before the PPKM work-at-home policy announcement, with high school and university classes all held online.

Since early July, campus areas and dormitories have been used as isolation areas with monitoring by the government-sanctioned COVID-19 Management Task Force.

Alfi Mulyani (31), a resident of the Bapangan village, Jepara, came on her motorbike to the isolation unit at the Diponegoro University campus in Jepara on 18 June. A campus attendant took her to a room, and found nobody there.

“In fact, I was the first to come here,” she said. “At first, I was a bit scared, but I made up my mind for the sake of my relatives at home, especially my only little daughter.”

The next day, four people came. “I was no longer scared. We had lunch together and shared our experiences during lunch conversations,” Alfi said. In the following days more came and by the end of the week there were 280 patients.

On 12 July, 229 people, including Alfi, were allowed to go home after testing negative. Only 51 people stayed. This success story has driven other university campuses to follow suit. The University of Indonesia has prepared its dormitories in Depok, West Java, not only for COVID-19 affected students but also for the wider public.

Padjadjaran University in Bandung also provides all COVID-19 related facilities, including free PCR tests, vaccinations, and rooms for lecturers, students and university workers’ self-treatment.

Yogyakarta-based Gadjah Mada University has turned its Mardliyyah Islamic Centre building, with 137 rooms and 200 beds, into an isolation centre. Bandung State Islamic University or UIN Bandung has given over its third campus (Campus III) entirely for COVID-19 patients. The campus can hold about 500 patients.

Under PPKM, market places and stores are open only until 8pm and restaurants are open but only for takeaways. Malls and supermarkets are completely closed, while mosques, churches, Buddhist monasteries and other shrines have been closed and Muslim’s Friday prayers are not allowed – though in many places the ban is not effective.

Thailand: student campaign for tuition fee reduction

As Thailand was struck by its fourth COVID-19 wave, with daily death tolls reaching over 100 and daily infected cases remaining above 10,000 for several consecutive weeks, most teaching had already shifted online from early 2020. Now Thailand’s national student bodies are demanding a reduction in tuition fees as a minimum measure to help support university students in a time of economic difficulties that come with months-long nationwide lockdowns, Sulakshana Lamubol reports from Bangkok.

On 20 July, official student bodies from 16 universities across Thailand submitted demands to Anek Laothamatas, the minister of higher education, science, research and innovation, and Wiroj Lakhanaadisorn, MP from the opposition Move Forward Party, requesting tuition fee reductions of 30%-50% for all university students until physical classes can resume.

They also requested broader criteria for the Student Loan Fund for students facing hardship during the pandemic.

“We invite all students to withhold tuition fee payments until the university adjusts the fees so that they are fairer,” the online campaign led by students from Bangkok-based Srinakharinwirot University said in a 12 July statement as the #ReturnTuitionFeetoStudents hashtag went viral on social media.

Laothamatas said after a meeting with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on 21 July that a sliding scale of tuition fee discounts would be implemented: A 50% discount will be applied to the first THB50,000 (US$1,500) of tuition payment, with a 30% reduction on THB50,001–THB100,000, and a 10% discount when payments exceed THB100,000.

The government will subsidise 60% of the discount, while the Higher Education Ministry will foot the bill for the remaining 40%.

Most universities implemented a 10% tuition fee reduction along with other measures such as a 50% reduction in dormitory fees, and internet package provision for online learning. However, students argued that it was not enough because of the economic impact of lockdown on students’ and their families’ income.

“In the current bad economic situation where people hardly receive any assistance from the government, students receive only 10% lower tuition fees even though they hardly go to university. They do not get to use the common areas of the university. As a result, students do not experience learning as much as they should while bearing the cost of online learning at home themselves,” Sirintra Kunakornpaiboonsiri, student welfare representative of Chulalongkorn University’s student union, told University World News.

“According to official data, the university still makes large profits and still has the potential to help more students. Therefore, the 10% reduction in tuition fees and other current remedial measures are unreasonable. It is not enough to deal with the hardships students have to face.”

The pandemic situation has been made worse by the government’s slow vaccine rollout and lack of remedial economic measures during lockdown.

As of 22 July, Thailand registered 3,697 deaths with 453,132 confirmed cases since 20 January 2020, according to the World Health Organization. According to the Nikkei Asia COVID-19 Recovery Index, Thailand ranks as one of the worst for handling COVID, ranking 118 out of 120. The index considers the infection rate and management, social mobility and vaccine rollouts in 120 countries.

Once praised for its pandemic management last year as death tolls had remained comparably low, the Thai government has been heavily criticised for its failure to control rapidly rising deaths and infection rates in recent months.

In particular, it is criticised for the mismanagement of vaccine procurement, only purchasing China’s Sinovac and AstraZeneca, deemed to have ties with powerful business groups in the country, while delaying purchasing mRNA vaccines such as Moderna or Pfizer which have been found to be more effective against new variants of the virus.

“The government must urgently procure various brands of vaccines for free for all people, effectively manage home isolation to reduce burdens on hospitals, as well as provide universal economic remedial measures to the people,” said Nannapat Aiewsakul of the Chulalongkorn Student Union.

China: campus restrictions and closed borders

China has closed its borders with neighbouring countries following new COVID-19 outbreaks this month, mainly in southern Guangdong province, while foreign students who have not been able to return to their courses since the January 2020 outbreak see the prospects of a return as being quite poor, Mimi Leung reports from Hong Kong.

As part of the country’s ‘zero tolerance’ strategy against COVID-19, universities in many parts of the country have been in lockdown since late May when the caseload began to rise.

The largest group of students shut out of China include Indian students – 23,000 of them, of whom 20,000 had been studying for medical degrees in China – who have been campaigning along with other foreign students to return to universities in China, including lobbying their own embassies to take up the issue with the Chinese authorities.

Indian students, who have also approached India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi for help in returning to China, say they are particularly hard hit because universities in China run online courses on Chinese apps that have been banned by the Indian government since a border standoff with China last year.

With a major vaccination drive under way, including for teenagers, China has achieved its goal of inoculating 40% of the population, roughly 560 million people, by the end of June and aims to vaccinate about 80% of the population by the end of the year.

Even in areas with low or no registered COVID-19 cases, a number of university campuses are still restricting students’ movements within the campus area, with evening curfews in place and permission required to leave campus even for essentials. Others say that campus restrictions are eased only slightly at weekends.

China has faced only relatively minor outbreaks of COVID-19 over the past year owing to mass testing, centralised quarantine and other strictly enforced measures. Universities in Beijing started vaccination campaigns for students and staff as early as the end of March, and universities in other parts of China have followed suit.

Taiwan: call for subsidies to extend to foreign students

The Taiwan Higher Education Union on 20 July called on the ministries of education and labour to extend COVID relief subsidies to foreign students.

As part of the stimulus package released in June, the Ministry of Education is offering emergency relief grants and rent subsidies for off-campus apartments, among other measures, to students and their family members impacted by the pandemic.

In addition, the Ministry of Labour is offering a TW$10,000 (US$350) living allowance to part-time workers, including students with financial difficulties.

However, currently only Taiwanese students are eligible for support. The union stated that instructors at various universities have reported receiving many messages from foreign students who have encountered financial hardship during the recent outbreak, which began in mid-May amid new restrictions.

The outbreak peaked on 27 May with 670 registered cases. Throughout 2020 and until May this year, Taiwan saw little more than a handful of cases each day and universities remained open, holding classes as normal.

In May universities switched to fully online teaching and learning.

Malaysia: fee reductions for students

Universities in Malaysia remain closed, but students have been demanding fee reductions after 18 months of disruptions. In a statement in mid-July, Malaysia’s higher education ministry urged public universities to reduce fees, particularly for students facing economic hardship due to the pandemic.

The ministry noted that public universities had already introduced initiatives to ease students’ financial burden, including the reduction of fees by 10%-35% for services, hostels and college activities.

“The reduction in fees for the second semester of the 2019-20 academic session for all Malaysian students involved an allocation of RM75 million [US$17.7 million], of which RM20 million is an additional allocation from the government and RM55 million is using UA’s [public universities’] internal resources,” the ministry said.

“For the first semester of the 2020-021 academic session, a fee reduction of RM70.2 million was provided by the public university. Meanwhile, for the second semester of the 2020-21 academic session, a reduction of RM40.5 million was given.

“This initiative has an estimated financial upshot of RM185.7 million that will benefit 386,142 students for the three semesters,” the statement said.

The ministry said 386,142 students at public universities would benefit from the fee reduction initiative. The ministry also confirmed last month that there will be no rise in fees for public universities. Higher Education Minister Noraini Ahmad said the ministry had also asked universities not to impose fees for other activities as most students were not on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But universities are unlikely to re-open until the daily number of cases drops below 4,000, with over 10% of the population vaccinated and the health system not in a ‘critical condition’, according to government guidelines. The numbers were still rising as of 22 July, with 12,366 new cases recorded on that day. Malaysia has seen 7,241 deaths from COVID-19 since January 2020.

Some 13.6 million vaccine doses had been administered as of mid-July. In late June students who could show they had an offer to attend universities overseas were allowed priority for COVID-19 jabs.

India: students demand fee waivers

India’s University Grants Commission (UGC) released guidelines this week to start the new academic session at universities on 1 October, after the postponement of school-leaving exams when the country was badly hit by COVID-19 outbreaks in May and June, overwhelming hospitals and making it one of the worst affected countries.

In May daily cases peaked at more than 414,000 official cases but are now around 40,000 new cases a day.

“It is still expected that all school boards will declare their results for class 12 exams by 31 July. If there is any delay in declaration of the result of qualifying exams, the new academic session may begin by 18 October,” the UGC said in new guidelines issued on 16 July.

However, teaching and learning will continue in online or blended mode, “following necessary protocols and advisories issued by central and state governments from time to time in view of the COVID-19 pandemic” the guidelines said.

In view of the financial hardships faced by parents during the pandemic, the UGC has asked universities and colleges to ensure that admission fees are fully refunded. In cases of cancellation of admissions or migration of students, they are only able to deduct a small processing fee.

However, students of Delhi University (DU) are demanding waivers of non-tuition fee costs including utilities, and cultural and sports fees for facilities they have been unable to use for over a year.

Protests broke out on several DU college campuses this week after students said they had not received a response on the matter from the university leadership. Students at other universities in India have also been protesting to get non-tuition fees refunded or reduced.

Bangladesh: demand for campus re-opening roadmap

Student groups in Bangladesh are demanding a roadmap for campus re-openings as the education ministry has yet to announce a timetable amid the second coronavirus wave in the country, Mushfique Wadud reports from Dhaka.

The ministry had planned to re-open campuses on 13 June but postponed this after the coronavirus situation worsened, with a record 12,236 new cases registered on 16 July. All educational institutions in the country have remained closed since 17 March last year and are conducting classes online. Examinations remain suspended due to the pandemic.

The student wing of Bangladesh’s main opposition party, Bangladesh Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD); the student wing of Bangladesh’s largest Islamic political party, Bangladesh Islami Chhatra Shibir; and some progressive student bodies have campaigned in the last few weeks demanding the re-opening of campuses.

Bangladesh Chhatra Federation General Secretary Zahid Sujon demanded that the government should declare its roadmap for re-opening. JCD President Fazlur Rahman Khokon said the government has failed to implement online classes properly, hampering academic progress.

On 15 July Education Minister Dipu Moni said during a virtual press conference that the COVID situation in the country did not allow the government to re-open campuses, and there was “no pressure” to do so, adding she had received messages from guardians and students urging the re-opening of campuses only after ensuring student safety. However, she did not provide a roadmap for re-opening.

The country registered 200 deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday 20 July. A total of 1,128,889 people have been infected with the virus, and 18,325 have died as of 20 July, Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) reported.

Earlier this month, the government started a mass vaccination campaign in the country. As of 20 July, nearly 4.298 million received the second dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, while 129,893 received the first dose of China’s Sinopharm vaccine. Additionally, 50,104 received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine and 269,537 received the first dose of the Moderna vaccine, according to DGHS.

Bangladesh also expects to receive three million doses of the Moderna vaccine as a gift, while two million Sinopharm vaccines arrived in the country last week.

Sri Lanka: vaccination of students underway

Sri Lankan universities have been closed for more than a year, with student unions blaming officials for not launching a proper healthcare programme to enable universities to re-open. Sri Lanka’s University Grants Commission (UGC) earlier planned to vaccinate all university students and to re-open universities, but the programme did not succeed due to the non-availability of vaccines, Dinesh De Alwis reports from Colombo.

Sri Lanka has begun to administer the Sinopharm vaccine for students going overseas for higher education. However, with several countries not accepting the Sinopharm vaccine, students leaving for those countries are given the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

According to General Shavendra Silva, head of the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak, so far more than 3,000 students planning to go overseas for higher education have received the vaccine.

Within Sri Lanka, all universities and schools remain closed due to an ongoing third coronavirus wave, which appears to have peaked in May with a record 2,959 cases recorded on 23 May. Daily new cases were around 1,604 on 21 July. Sri Lanka has so far reported more than 290,000 COVID-19 cases with nearly 4,000 deaths.

The Sri Lanka Medical Association has warned that the country will experience a fourth wave as more highly transmissible Delta variant cases are being detected.

More than 6.3 million first doses of the coronavirus vaccine have been administered in Sri Lanka, with over 51% of the total population above the age of 30 in Sri Lanka having received at least the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has instructed officials to vaccinate a majority of the population against the COVID-19 virus before September this year.

Sri Lanka so far received over 10 million vaccines but is still struggling to get the AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine to give as a second jab to those who had it as a first dose.

The Sri Lankan government is planning to re-open schools from the first week of August as vaccination of school teachers is near completion. Sri Lanka began the vaccination of school teachers, principals, non-academic staff and pre-school teachers from 12 July in order to re-open schools. So far more than 200,000 teachers have been vaccinated.

Under the first phase, the government plans to re-open about 3,000 schools with less than 100 students based on the instructions of the health authorities. All schools have been closed in Sri Lanka since mid-April due to the third coronavirus wave.

University World News Asia Editor Yojana Sharma wrote this report compiled from dispatches from UWN correspondents in the region.