As the new semester begins this month in Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea, local and foreign students are facing continued online teaching and in some cases border restrictions for international students even as vaccine programmes get under way, adding to the uncertainty for students.
In Japan, universities are scrambling to respond to the latest government emergency regulations aimed at reducing the latest wave of COVID-19 infections – its fourth wave which began just before the Tokyo Olympic games in July.
Higher education management experts say it is a challenge to announce concrete study plans amid constant extensions to the national state of emergency. Universities outside Tokyo are also obliged to follow local municipal safety regulations, adding to variations in information to students, both local and international, about the new semester.
With the new wave of infections linked to the more infectious Delta variant, Japan is grappling with an average of almost 2,000 cases across the country daily, which only began to drop in the first week of September. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has declared an emergency until 12 September and that deadline is now under consideration for further extension.
This has resulted in more universities changing their plans at the last moment. Hosei University in Tokyo updated its website explaining that its new measures to resort to more online teaching from 17 September to 2 October are aimed at ensuring the safety of students.
“After 4 October we expect that the university’s class policy will shift to a face-to-face format, with a gradual switch from online classes to in-person classes,” it said in an announcement.
Kaetsu University in Tokyo has adopted more online classes – a change from its original plan to hold mostly in-person classes for the first two weeks of the new semester from 24 September to 8 October. A university notice stated it may change its plan and hold all classes online if the number of infections increases in Tokyo. The decision will be made at the end of September.
Tohoku University, a national university based in Sendai, northern Japan, also tightened its campus policy from September. A notice on its website requested students to not participate in extra-curricular activities such as sports and music or invite instructors from outside areas.
Around 350 of the country’s almost 800 universities are currently offering vaccinations for their students.
“With Japan’s vaccination programme gaining steam, we hoped more international students would be on campus this fall to facilitate the return to physical attendance while practising safety steps. But with the latest emergency extension, our plan will have to be shelved for a while starting this month,” explained Kenji Ito, manager at the Tokyo office of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU), located in Beppu, Kyushu.
APU has over 2,600 international students or 46% of its total student body. Of this number, around 750, including 350 newly enrolled students, are still awaiting Japanese visas.
The decision by the Japanese government to impose tough immigration laws restricting entry of international students is another blow as the APU curriculum stresses close discussion and dialogue between its international students and their Japanese counterparts, Ito said.
APU has been providing online teaching for more than a year and says it has not had dropouts yet among the enrolled international students.
But, Ito said: “Online classes are not that productive for our core teaching which is to encourage students to learn from each other through discussion.”
International students still locked out of China
The new semester in China begins this month without international students, with the exception of students from South Korea, who will be allowed in under a bilateral visa agreement signed between the two countries in July last year. Students from other countries will have lost two full years of time if they are not allowed in this semester.
“This does not make sense! My country’s percentage of fully vaccinated people is more than South Korea’s, but China is still opening [its] borders for Korean students but closing [them] for us,” said a Moroccan student via Twitter, stranded since last year.
Many students shut out of China since January 2020 said they had not been back even to retrieve their possessions and said that some universities had thrown out their belongings, which had led to the loss of materials and important documents.
Foreign students shut out of China have been highly vocal. Students from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, among the largest groups of international students enrolled in Chinese universities, have been lobbying their governments and ambassadors in China to take up the issue with Beijing.
In the latest protests, on 5 September, more than 1,000 students stranded in Bangladesh, including PhD students, protested in the capital Dhaka, forming a human chain and holding posters saying: “We are vaccinated, ready for quarantine. Now what is your excuse.”
“Waiting for further notice is not a suitable solution,” said another placard.
The Bangladeshi students said in a statement: “Nearly 8,900 students have applied for coronavirus vaccines and already 6,000 of them have been vaccinated with both doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine under the special supervision of Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry,” citing the ministry’s records.
The statement added that Bangladeshi students have been studying in China with scholarships mostly with leave without pay or permanently leaving their jobs in their home country. “Now they do not get a monthly allowance from China and are suffering from an acute economic crisis that is affecting their academic careers as well as their families,” it said.
Others like Curtis Chin, a former US representative to the Asian Development Bank, in a tweet pointed to the contrast between Beijing’s rhetoric of partnership and friendship with the developing nations of Africa and Asia and its treatment of international students.
Some foreign students reported that the irregular schedule of online classes, often at inconvenient hours for students, were a burden, and meant they had little contact with their classmates. Others under the #takeusbacktochina hashtag on Twitter noted that some Chinese universities did not provide online classes to international students and repeatedly forced them to postpone the semester.
Experts in Hong Kong said many universities on the mainland fear the sector will not be opened up to foreign students before the winter Olympics to be held in China in February 2022. But others said it was more likely that China was still rolling out its vaccination drive before allowing in foreign students.
This week Wu Liang, deputy head of the National Health Commission’s disease control department, said that as of 6 September China had administered doses to 1.09 billion people or around 77.6% of the population. Some 970 million had received two doses, he said. Around 162 million doses have been given to 12 to 17 year olds.
Taiwan re-opening to international students
Taiwan announced that international students could begin applying for entry from 24 August, but it has been cautious, wanting to stagger arrivals. Arriving foreign students will have to undertake tests and 14 days of quarantine, mainly in university accommodation.
Taiwan reimposed a ban on foreign travellers on 17 May as COVID-19 cases surged, and on 11 June suspended visa processing at its overseas missions.
Taiwan lowered its epidemic control measures from the highest level three to level two on 27 July as local COVID cases continued to subside significantly, but international students without a residence permit were still not allowed to enter.
Level two measures had been due to be dropped to level one by August but were instead extended first to 6 September and then to 20 September, but with looser restrictions, which would still allow in around 13,000 students, though not all would be able to make it in time for the new semester to begin, according to universities.
South Korea links arrivals to vaccine roll-out
South Korea is linking its opening up to new foreign students to its country-wide vaccine roll-out, saying international students from around 26 countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, South America and the Caribbean most affected by the highly contagious Delta variant should postpone travelling to Korea until around 70% of Koreans have received their first vaccination dose.
However, this target is unlikely to be met before the end of September when the new semester begins. By last week, some 57% of the population had received their first dose.
Korea’s education ministry wants to stagger the arrival of foreign students by supporting remote learning. It said international students who decide to take online classes from their home country after getting a Korean student visa can still travel to Korea in the middle of the semester without fear of their visas being revoked.
Seoul National University already announced it would keep classes online until the end of September, while many other universities in Seoul, including Yonsei University and Korea University, said they would continue with online classes until the current level four social distancing measures are lifted.
South Korea’s education ministry recommended that international students choosing to come to Korea before the vaccine milestone was reached should stay at designated self-quarantine facilities where medical staff are always on duty or at university dormitories for their 14-day self-isolation. They can also self-isolate at accommodation of their choice.
Foreign students entering South Korea for university in September must also undergo three coronavirus tests, according to the education ministry, before and after arrival and at the end of their two-week quarantine.
Some 34,000 international students came to Korea in the first half of this year, down 82% from 185,000 in the first half of 2019. Of the 34,000 foreign students, some 255 confirmed cases of COVID-19 were registered, including 33 found at the airport where they tested positive for COVID-19 and 222 who tested positive during their self-isolation period, said the ministry.
Antivirus measures targeted at foreign student arrivals during previous semesters, such as providing separate transportation and conducting more tests, had helped prevent the spread of the virus in the local community, the ministry said.
“We are deeply grateful to universities and local governments for their efforts to protect and manage foreign students for a year and a half, starting with Chinese students in February last year,” Korea’s Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae was quoted as saying.