Before the pandemic, China was becoming a formidable study abroad destination. In 1995, it attracted some 37,000 international students; that figure has risen by more than 1200% since then. By 2019, China was the fifth-ranked study destination globally, following closely behind the US, UK, Australia, and Canada — and seemed to be quickly catching up.
Then COVID-19 struck.
China international students will likely remember the moment the virus became a worldwide threat, shuttering cities and contributing to a death toll that climbed daily and left governments at a loss of what to do.
In Wuhan, China, where the first strains of the coronavirus was discovered, citizens were unprepared for an abrupt lockdown — described by the New York Times as “stunning at the time”. The rest of China soon followed, and shortly after, the country shut its borders to the world.
This left international students who had returned home for their holidays in a predicament. Many had left their belongings in their dorm rooms, fully intending to return to campus after what was meant to be a short winter break. When universities announced that the term would continue through online learning, many were left without their laptops, books, and other essential materials to continue their studies.
Meera, an Indian medical student locked out of China, was thankfully well-placed to adjust to this. She was able to study from home and had access to a functioning laptop, a decent network connection, and a fairly minimal time difference. Some of her classmates in other countries, however, weren’t so lucky. “I’ve seen how other students struggle with [a] bad Internet connection and time gaps,” she tells Study International. “All these issues together have become a burden for us.”
Despite the roadblocks, some students have adapted better than others to remote learning. “We’ve become quite creative with our studies,” says Meera. She and her classmates meet online to teach each other about their subjects, hold brainstorming sessions, and trade online resources with each other.
Still, online learning is not a good substitute for medical students who require clinical skills to practice in the future. “Being in such a programme where we have to treat patients, we need practical sessions and hands-on experience,” says Meera. “We have been missing all those precious years and experiences.”
China international students: There’s been “zero communication”
Outside the classroom, students received little support from their universities’ international student associations and only have each other to rely on for support.
“There was zero communication,” claims Sarah, another international student who requested to stay anonymous. “They completely overlooked me and didn’t send any details on the course registration, opening dates, the start of lectures, or anything like that. I thought, ‘How can that happen? I’m completely isolated here.’ I wrote an email to the faculty and received no reply.”
Two years since China’s border closure and students are still clueless over when they’ll be able to step foot on campus again. On Sunday, China announced plans to consider a “coordinated arrangement” for their return, but failed to provide a clear timeline. Chinese embassies in students’ respective countries have not offered much help either.
Students have been calling for more clarity over their return. “After all this online trauma, we hope that things might go smoothly for us soon,” says Meera. “But the government and policymakers are making it difficult.”
The proverbial wall is beginning to have serious consequences for students, particularly those from Iran.
Iranian students were blocked from creating bank accounts in China and were unable to pay their fees. “They used to pay everything in hard cash, even their tuition fees and medical expenses,” claims Meera. “Now that they’re stuck in Iran, they can’t make any online transfers. The university keeps telling them to pay their fees on time or they won’t get their transcripts, which you’d usually need to transfer to another institution. They won’t be able to sit for exams. They won’t be eligible for scholarships.”
International students’ pleas for details are left largely unheeded; many feel unappreciated and neglected by a country that they are desperately trying to defend. “I remember people asking me, ‘Why do you want to go back to China?’” recalls Meera. “The fact that they are not calling students back really breaks our hearts, because we’re really trying to defend China.”
Students like Sarah are beginning to lose hope. “The bulk of students are local, so we are very much the minority,” she says. “So they’re fine with completely overlooking us. In fact, I don’t even think that they need us. They just want us so that we can raise their rankings, because universities cannot qualify on world rankings with just local students.”
Sarah is now turning away from China to complete her education in another country. Meera is hoping to return to China eventually, but has resigned to complete her practicals elsewhere. If the situation doesn’t improve, it’s likely that many other students will go down the same route.