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International students’ frustration mounts as Chinese border remains closed

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • International students enrolled in Chinese higher education institutions who were caught outside China when the pandemic first hit have been shut out of the country for more than a year
  • Many are very concerned about their ability to complete their degrees on time and about whether medical or scientific degrees obtained online without a sufficient laboratory/clinical component will be accepted by professional boards and bodies in their home countries
  • Thousands of students – many from South Asia and Africa – have been launching petitions aimed at facilitating their return to China – as well as to Australia and Japan, where borders also remain shut to international students

Thousands of international students who are enrolled in Chinese higher education institutions are currently unable to enter China due to the country’s 16-month-old COVID-related ban on international visitors. There are indications that the ban may not be fully lifted until 2022, and frustration is mounting. Students are worried about losing their investment in their degrees and are dissatisfied with the lack of communication and guidance they are receiving from the Chinese government.

Chinese embassies in certain countries have announced that some travellers who have received both doses of a Chinese-made COVID vaccine (Sinovac or Sinopharm) or of Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, or Moderna can now apply for visas to enter China, but there is no mention of international students in their briefings. The wording for eligible applicants is “Personnel or their family members who come to China for necessary work and production resumption activities (work, business, visit etc.)” In other words, resuming studies is not listed as a valid reason to apply for a visa at this point.

Many of the stranded students are from Africa and Asia and are studying STEM subjects such as medicine, engineering, and science. For African students especially, a degree obtained from China has increasingly been viewed over the past few years as a valuable, relatively affordable stepping-stone to a good job. The possibility of not obtaining the expertise and prestige associated with such a degree naturally has many extremely concerned that they have lost their time and financial investment – and it appears be damaging the image of China’s educational brand in key markets in Africa and Asia.

Students’ concerns include:

  • Not having enough time or access to lab facilities to be able to complete required elements of their programme – the Chinese government is providing little to no flexibility regarding time limits for degree completion;
  • Not being provided tuition discounts despite having to learn online and remotely in non-ideal conditions and across time zones;
  • Not being able to receive the clinical training and laboratory work inherent in a medical/STEM degree that allows graduates to secure jobs and certification to practise in their fields.

Many petitions, no response

Since January 2021, groups of international students have been petitioning the Chinese government to allow them to return to China, but by all accounts, the Chinese government has not provided clear guidance on borders might reopen to them or what they can do in the meantime to progress properly in their degrees.

An Instagram account set up by the China International Student Union (CISU) called @takeusbacktochina now has more than 9,000 followers. Recently, 5,000 students participated in the group’s survey of how they are feeling about their studies in China. As you can see below, close to two thirds said they are not going to be able to meet their time limit on their degree and more than half said they have a more negative opinion of China than before the country closed its borders due to the pandemic. Many are hoping for China to allow them to obtain needed laboratory work and clinical training in universities and scientific facilities in their home countries through credit transfer and other flexibility.

Thousands more international students have signed a petition asking the UN to intervene to help them be able to return to destination countries with travel bans including China, Australia, and Japan.

Students worry about clinical experience

Times Higher Education reports that some Indian medical students have told them that “their Chinese institutions, possibly under pressure to issue degrees in a particular time frame, resorted to sending PowerPoint slides or online videos in lieu of clinical practice for essential skills such as surgery.” Another Indian student told THE that, “Some [Indian] states allow [Chinese-enrolled] medical students to do internships, while others consider the Chinese degrees null and void.” Still another said “without clinical experience, I cannot be board-certified in India. And if I cannot practice, I cannot become a doctor and pay back my loan.”

A North African student added, “I only have two years left, and I have to publish two journal articles, which is impossible without lab experiments.” That student explained that “the problem in China is that the rules are rules, and there are no exceptions.”

Remote learning a poor substitute

Benjamin Mulvey, a doctoral candidate at the Education University of Hong Kong, told University World News that language barriers are causing difficulty for international students studying remotely:

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a common problem was that of communication issues between Chinese lecturers and foreign students in courses where English was used as the medium of instruction. Now online teaching seems to have exacerbated the problem.”

Internet access and connections are also an issue for many students, as are time zone differences. As University World News notes, “whereas the time difference between China and East Africa is about five hours, it increases to six hours in Southern Africa and eight hours to countries in West Africa.”

China’s investments in soft power at stake

Over the past decade, China has quickly become a major destination for international students and has invested heavily in particular in Africa, where it offers thousands of scholarships to students every year. In 2017, for example, China hosted more than 74,000 students from 24 African countries thanks to overall growth of 258% from 2011–2017. While Asian students still greatly outnumber African students in China, African enrolments grew nearly three times faster than Asian enrolments between 2011 and 2017.

China’s expanding higher education capacity, increasing number of institutions in top global rankings, relative affordability of degrees, abundant scholarships, and geo-political power have convinced many African students to choose China over traditional Western destinations in recent years. But the travel ban and international students’ petitions and anger at being ignored may well inflict damage to the Chinese education brand in the very markets it has worked so hard to cultivate.

France could be in a strong position to reclaim some of the market share it last lost recently to China in Francophone Africa. Its continuing Bienvenue en France campaign emphasises how welcoming France is to international students, even in the pandemic, and it is working hard to attract international doctoral students in particular.

Canada and the UK are also strong contenders for picking up market share from China. Both countries are using immigration policy to attract talented foreign students and workers, and both have tried to keep borders as open as possible throughout the pandemic to international students.

Finally, the US has once again become highly competitive as well under President Biden. Even before President Biden’s election win, the number of Sub-Saharan African students in the US (particularly from Nigeria) hit a record high of 40,290 in 2018/19, a 2% increase over the previous year.

For additional background, please see:


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