International student flows extend fallout from coronavirus outbreak

admin 0 Comments February 4, 2020

With internationalisation of higher education, the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak – combined with larger than usual international student movements to and from China during the January holiday period – has meant that a large number of universities in different countries have had to bring in contingency measures to help control the spread of disease.

The measures include delaying the start of the university semester in China and Hong Kong and in other countries in Asia such as Singapore; postponing campus orientation events for new students at universities that normally start the academic year in March such as in South Korea; and specific quarantine advice for returning students in countries including Australia, Thailand and elsewhere.

In Australia, the universities of New South Wales, Sydney and Wollongong are allowing students unable to leave China the option to defer their studies or enrol late. Some University of Sydney students facing ‘exceptional circumstances’ could have their tuition fees refunded, the university said.

Foreign students at universities in Hubei province near the epicentre of the virus outbreak and Chinese students returning to universities overseas have been particularly affected, with preparations underway in some countries to evacuate them to their home countries.

Chinese students make up the largest contingent of foreign students abroad. Although only very few were in the affected area in and around the city of Wuhan in Hubei, many returned to China for the Lunar New Year break in January and are now expected to fly back.

Within China, the virus has spread rapidly during the second half of January with the number of confirmed cases rising from 6,000 on 29 January to over 9,800 by 31 January, and around 62 registered cases in other Asian countries, including at least a dozen cases each in Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and Thailand.

The official death toll in China as of 31 January was put at more than 213. Wuhan saw its first coronavirus case in early December, according to reports.

Universities were seen as particularly vulnerable to the spread of disease, diplomats in Beijing said. The large numbers of Chinese students at universities around the region meant that the risk of the virus spreading through the student route was seen as high in Asia.

But many countries were keen to avoid use of the word ‘quarantine’ for returning Chinese and other students from the affected area, which could have meant even more widespread semester delays and other measures in some countries in Asia.

Delayed semester start

China’s Ministry of Education, in an announcement on 28 January, said the start of the spring semester was postponed for schools and universities, without providing a new start date. The ministry said only that institutions would reopen on “a case-by-case basis”.

School administrators had been instructed to “require students not to go out, not to gather, and not to hold or participate in centralised activities”, the statement added.

The Ministry of Education announced on 27 January that English proficiency examinations for Chinese students to apply to foreign universities would be cancelled nationwide during February. The exams include the International English Language Testing System or IELTS, the Test of English as a Foreign Language or TOEFL, the Graduate Record Examination or GRE, and the Graduate Management Admission Test or GMAT.

These cancellations are likely to have a knock-on effect on applications for the 2020 to 2021 academic year, although it is thought likely that students will be able take the tests later, universities said.

Foreign students at universities in Wuhan and even further away in Shanghai said campuses have been deserted at a time when students would normally be returning after the Lunar New Year on 25 January.

Tsinghua University in Beijing, one of China’s top institutions, announced that it would delay the beginning of classes for its spring semester, originally scheduled to start on 17 February, “to reduce the risk of transmission and ensure the health and safety of every student and staff”. No new start date was given.

The cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong have also delayed the start of the university semester to 17 February, although student campus accommodation remains open. Several Hong Kong universities, including the University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong Polytechnic University and Hong Kong Baptist University, further extended their closure until 2 March.

The Chinese-American Duke Kunshan University in Jiangsu province said in a 25 January statement that it had decided to postpone all classes in all programmes until 17 February.

“We will also be restricting access to our campus to essential personnel only. All other members of the Duke Kunshan community – students, faculty who do not reside on campus, and staff – and outside visitors will not be permitted to enter before Saturday 15 February,” the statement said.

“As we adapt to developments surrounding the coronavirus, Duke Kunshan may be required to revise class schedules further,” the university added.

“Members of the Duke Kunshan community who travelled home for Spring Festival [Lunar New Year] are advised to stay there, while those who travelled to a third destination are advised to stay where they are or return home, unless they are from Hubei province.”

In another statement on 26 January, the university said: “Students residing on campus are not allowed to leave unless they need to travel to the hospital.”


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