Under severe criticism for keeping out foreign students and faculty under its coronavirus protection entry ban, Japan is hinting at plans to start relaxing the rules from August.
But a lack of clear policy, including a specific entry date for foreign students and teachers, continues to worry university management amid concerns over the status of their studies, research and jobs.
This contrasts with others such as Taiwan, which never had a complete campus lockdown, and Singapore where universities are now reopening. These countries will allow in foreign students and researchers from this month and August respectively, under strict quarantine conditions that will be completed in time for foreign students to start the new semester.
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said on 10 July that Japan will start discussions with countries seeing declining coronavirus infections and high demand for business trips. The entry ban was imposed on 3 April with 129 countries on the list.
The easing of travel restrictions will be in stages and cover 10 countries including China, South Korea and Taiwan, Japanese media reported. The conditions for entry are that foreigners must submit negative COVID-19 test results.
Some foreign residents are allowed to return under special conditions such as for humanitarian reasons. But the foreign minister also said Japan would prioritise “business travellers and international talent Japan is in need of” before easing restrictions for foreign students and eventually for tourists.
The lack of testing capacity in Japan has been highlighted by Japanese media. Japan’s Kyodo News service reported on Friday that China and South Korea could pose a larger challenge because of the sheer number of people that could potentially come to Japan.
But the Japan Association of National Universities on 13 July sent an appeal to the ministry of education calling on the government to permit foreign students and researchers resident in Japan to re-enter after taking strict preventative measures.
The European Association for Japanese Studies (EAJS), an organisation of some 800 foreign academics and students, launched its first ever online petition on 6 July demanding a change in the government’s restrictive policy that stops foreigners returning to Japan to study and work.
“Foreigners are paying their taxes [and] have resident and valid visas. They should not be treated differently to Japanese nationals,” said EAJS President Andrej Bekes.
The petition gained more than 12,000 signatures this week. A survey of EAJS members indicated that more than 80% of respondents have been adversely affected by the travel restrictions. More than 350 online comments from foreign academia indicated they are grappling with the emotional pressures of being separated from family, as well as anxiety over the status of their jobs and research.
The EAJS petition also raised the issue of discrimination, pointing out that foreign academics and students are treated as ‘refugees’ rather than as bona fide residents.
While online classes are currently the main form of instruction at universities, EAJS is lobbying for change, pointing out that restricting physical presence on campuses could lead to a reduction in the enrolment of foreign students and faculty.
“Universities are at the vanguard of internationalisation of Japanese society,” Carolin Funck, vice-president of Hiroshima University and a signatory of the petition, told University World News. “The numbers of foreigners are growing and our teaching faculty also has many Japanese nationals graduating from international universities. An entry ban is a huge blow to the globalisation of Japanese universities,” she said.
Hiroshima University, a national higher education institution, is one of Japan’s top ‘Super Global Universities’, with around 12% of its student body comprising foreign students and more than 7% foreign faculty. She said some 88 foreign students and two teachers have been unable to re-enter Japan and added that their studies have been disrupted as they do not have access to documents left on campus and cannot participate in laboratory experiments.
The coronavirus pandemic forced universities to opt for online teaching until the fall semester. But as infections continue, foreign students continue to face an uncertain future, Funck says.
Japan has 300,000 foreign students, of whom half are enrolled in publicly funded and private universities.
By contrast, Taiwan’s ministry of education announced in early July that it would allow in international students from 18 countries and areas deemed to be at lower risk for COVID-19 in time to start the new semester in August.
The authorities said some 338 foreign students had already been granted entry by 13 July – the first week of lifting the restrictions.
Foreign students will have to be quarantined for 14 days, with universities shouldering the quarantine costs of around US$1,018 per student. Some university dorms are also being used for quarantining returning students.
According to reports, Taiwanese students currently studying abroad have flooded Taiwan’s top universities with applications to return to study in the country due to the COVID-19 situation and shuttered campuses elsewhere, after the ministry had launched a special programme to allow universities to admit extra new students and transfer students from abroad in the coming semester.
A large proportion of students are headed back home from China and Hong Kong, Taiwan’s Liberty Times newspaper reported, noting that this could be associated with increased political risks due to the imposition of a draconian national security law in Hong Kong.
Singapore’s universities reopened in early June and will start the new semester in August – some weeks before the normal semester begins so that foreign students from selected countries can complete quarantine in time for the start of the semester.
“We are bringing them in slowly over the next six weeks or so; we have to make sure they are quarantined for 14 days,” Tan Eng Chye, president of the National University of Singapore, told University World News.
“There are certain countries where the COVID-19 situation is stable and where at the country-to-country level both governments have agreed that there can be an interchange of people on essential business. Studying is an essential business, so Singapore allows this,” Tan said, adding that the lifting of restrictions from those specified countries includes new students.
But students from other countries “will have to hold on for a little while and they would have to go online for their classes,” he said.
“We are restricting our classes to no more than 50 and our students will be safely distanced, so we converted our big lecture theatres which usually accommodate 200 or 300 people into classrooms for 50 people or less. All of us will have to wear masks. Our professors will also have to wear shields so we minimise the chances of the virus spreading,” he said.
As for academics and researchers, “quite a substantial number of foreign colleagues have chosen to remain in Singapore, and so we were quite fortunate that they were able to continue here,” Tan said.