International students enrolled at universities in mainland China, who are facing the possibility of being shut out of the country for a year, are becoming increasingly vocal about being allowed back to resume their studies.
Hopes that overseas students can return before the end of the year are dimming, as Beijing further tightened controls this month to bar all non-Chinese nationals from Britain, France, Russia, India and other countries.
Normally, China hosts almost 500,000 international students a year, but the government claims that there have been no COVID-19 cases on any mainland Chinese campus since August -- and it intends to keep things that way.
“I think the Chinese government is cautious because the government does not want to see imported infection cases, which would harm anti-COVID measures,” Ka Ho Mok, vice president and dean of the School of Graduate Studies at Lingnan University Hong Kong, told Times Higher Education.
Mok, an expert in comparative higher education policy, urged patience. “As China is the first country in the globe to recover in terms of economic development, I think people and students in other parts of the globe would still be interested to study in China when the global health crisis is stable and national borders reopen,” he said.
However, the entry block is a pressing concern for students stuck midway through their studies.
A British chemist working toward her Ph.D. at a Chinese university told Times Higher Education that, like many international students, she left the country during the Lunar New Year holidays in January and has not been able to return.
“This [policy] led to some schools banning students from returning to China if they were abroad,” she said.
“I cannot complete my work remotely at all, as it is completely lab-based,” she said. “My Ph.D. will be suspended and delayed until I’m able to return; however, it will reduce my chances of completing my Ph.D. in the time limit, as some universities only allow enrollment for a maximum of five years.”
About 1,000 foreign students wrote in a bilingual Chinese-English appeal that “China is our second home, so of course we will keep China safe at any cost” and promised to adhere to the mandatory 14-day quarantine and other restrictions.
“We, as students, contribute to university budgets,” they wrote. “We are creating cutting-edge technologies that will hugely benefit China in the future, and some of us are even pursuing our own start-ups in China, too.”
The problem appears greatest for final-year students with pending clinical, lab or work-study assignments. If they cannot secure internships and placements soon, their applications for postgraduate work or jobs could be delayed by a full year. And that is not to mention the fact that many of these students are still paying for rent and tuition in China, while scholarship money has been cut.
Some of the frustration, it appears, stems from the feeling that rules have been unevenly applied. For example, foreign professors and businesspeople can enter China.
“Our work is essentially the same,” said the British Ph.D. candidate, who wished to remain unnamed. “I think using the severity of the pandemic is a weak excuse given to students if workers and businesspeople are able to return freely.”
She also noted that Chinese students could travel between overseas universities and home. “Many Chinese students have had planes chartered by U.K. universities, so to see that sort of treatment in contrast to students who chose to study in China and have been waiting indefinitely, it hurts a lot being ignored for so long.”
However, mainland China is not alone in blocking international students.
About a quarter of foreign students enrolled in Australia are still in their home countries, with only a small number allowed back via pilot plans, while New Zealand is letting in only some postgraduates engaged in clinical or lab work.
Elsewhere across Asia-Pacific, though, doors are slowly reopening. Most international students are back on campus in Hong Kong and Singapore, while Taiwan lifted its ban on most overseas students in August. Even Japan, which was roundly criticized for its border controls, has allowed some entrants since October.