Indian medical students go to court over China lockdown

Frustrated at lack of responses over when they can resume their studies in China, Indian medical students enrolled in Chinese universities have gone to court to seek clear guidelines from the Indian government on their qualifications while they are unable to travel to China due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The 147 petitioners, all students of medicine at Ningbo University, informed the Delhi High Court this week that China had no plans to take back Indian students for some time.

Lawyer Bineesh Karat said that the students cannot go to China because of restrictions, so they approached the court. “Under these conditions they are unable to complete their course and it’s a violation of their right to education,” Karat told University World News.

The petitioners, through their lawyers, orally requested the court to consider their application to seek direction from the Indian government and from India’s National Medical Commission – which regulates medical education and medical professionals – to recognise online classes provided by universities in China and attended by the petitioners.

According to their plea, the careers of about 18,000 medical students are at stake as they are stuck in India for two years due to the restrictions imposed by China since January 2020, when China shut down and then later imposed strict visa and border restrictions.

The official representative in India of Ningbo University Dr Nimshad, CEO of Eduzone Consultants, said the petition made three demands: “The Indian government should interfere in this matter so that the students can go back to China and study as they [China] will be allowing students from some other countries. The National Medical Commission [of India] should clarify whether their online degree will be valid. And whether they are allowed to get transferred so that they can complete their studies in some other foreign country,” Nimshad told University World News.

Nimshad was referring to reports that Chinese diplomats had assured some countries that they will allow students back “soon”, but did not set out a timetable. Chinese assurances in the past have not led to the reopening of borders to foreign students, with the exception of students from South Korea.

According to data released by the Indian Embassy in China, more than 23,000 Indian students were enrolled in Chinese universities at the time of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. Of these, more than 18,000 were pursuing medical degrees.

Unable to return to China

Most came back or were evacuated to India in 2020 but are now stranded in their home country because Beijing prohibits foreign students from returning to its universities, and has been unable to say when its borders will reopen to foreign students, despite intense lobbying by students and approaches by Indian and other foreign diplomats whose students are similarly shut out.

The Indian Embassy in Beijing has taken up this issue with China’s foreign and education ministries without much headway so far.

The students argue that online learning is not a good substitute for medical students who require clinical skills to practise in future. Besides, many students locked out of China and pursuing medical studies online complained of poor internet connectivity and poor quality of online education. Some said they received little assistance from international student associations of their universities and had to rely on each other for support.

One of the petitioners, Arshad Ali, a fourth-year student at Ningbo University, told University World News: “There are students from various other universities of China but they have continued through online mode.” He said the Ningbo University petitioners had decided to discontinue the online classes “so that we should not face any problem even though we have had to sacrifice one year for this”.

Ali was referring to conditions laid down by some medical councils regarding medical licences in India. According to a Tamil Nadu Medical Council circular, a medical student is allowed to have only up to 25% online classes for their medical degree to be recognised.

“We want more clarity from the [Indian] government on our issues. We stopped our online classes last year because we couldn't do medical studies in online mode for almost two years,” Ali said.

The students pointed out that while they are unable to return to China, the Indian authorities had notified them of regulations requiring Indian students studying abroad to undertake the entire course, including practical training and internship, at the medical institutions abroad.

The Indian students also wrote to the Ministry of Health and Ministry of External Affairs as well as to the Indian and Chinese governments to facilitate their return to China.

“We have made various representations to different Indian government departments, but we have not received any satisfactory reply from any of them,” said Ali.

During a hearing on 10 February at the Delhi High Court, before the division bench of Chief Justice DN Patel and Justice Jyoti Singh, the court issued notices to the respondents including India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the National Medical Commission (NMC) seeking their response to the students’ petition. Court notices were also issued to the ministries of law and health, seeking responses.

Regulator warns students

The NMC this month cautioned students seeking admission to MBBS programmes in China, after some Chinese universities advertised inviting applications for admission for the current and forthcoming academic years.

The NMC notice issued on 8 February said any prospective student needed to be aware that the Chinese government continues to ban the entry of foreign students in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. NMC said China had imposed strict travel restrictions and suspended all visas since November 2020. It advised students to carry out adequate checks before choosing to pursue medical education in China.

NMC Secretary Sandhya Bhullar said students who enrol in Chinese institutions this academic year may have to take classes online in the near future, and reiterated that the NMC does not recognise or approve fully online medical courses.

No clear timeline for return

China is reportedly considering a coordinated arrangement for the return of foreign students to China. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said recently that the Chinese government attached great importance to this issue and was ready to “work actively toward the healthy, safe and orderly cross-border flow of people on the basis of sound anti-epidemic protocols”.

However, Zhao did not specify a clear timeline regarding when Indian students could return.

During the recent visit of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to China for the Winter Olympic Games, China promised to “arrange” for the return of about 28,000 Pakistani students who have been stuck back home for the past two years.

A joint statement issued at the end of Khan’s four-day visit to China on Sunday 6 February said: “While ensuring safety against COVID-19, China will arrange for Pakistani students to return to China and resume classes in a prudent manner.”

China reportedly made similar assurances to Mongolia and Singapore, whose leaders were in Beijing for the Olympics opening ceremony. Recently, the Sri Lankan government urged Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during his visit to Colombo, to allow its medical students studying in Chinese universities to return as their future was at stake.