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Chinese universities operating under strict COVID protocols for new academic year

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Chinese health authorities are dealing with a serious COVID outbreak in Nanjing, with cases reported in other centres in the same eastern-central province
  • Emergency guidance from the Ministry of Education sets out strict COVID guidance for the coming academic year
  • Several institutions have closed their campuses to visitors and advised students to remain on campus; others have delayed semester starts or suspended registrations for new students for the fall semester

The Chinese government has established a “zero tolerance” policy for COVID outbreaks, and this is already affecting higher education programmes and services for the coming academic year. A number of universities in cities reporting spikes in COVID cases have delayed admissions cycles, planned semester starts in September, or are otherwise operating under strict COVID protocols.

A 3 August emergency notice from the Ministry of Education sets out strict operating conditions for Chinese institutions this year. It directs universities to maintain existing safeguards for public health, ensure that emergency plans are in place, and forego any plans for large gatherings on campus. “Local education departments and universities must strictly control the organization of large-scale activities,” says the notice, adding that universities, “should further improve emergency response plans. Once an epidemic occurs in the area, promptly activate the plan to deal with it. Strengthen summer internships, practical training, and practice student management, refine the epidemic prevention and control measures before school starts, and do a good job in the concern and psychological counselling of teachers and students in epidemic-related areas.”

Outbreaks have been particularly noted in the eastern-central coastal province of Jiangsu. Jiangsu is one China’s smallest provinces but also one of its most densely populated. Health authorities in one provincial centre, Yangzhou, have issued strict lockdown orders, effectively placing an estimated 12,000 university students on area campuses into quarantine.

In Nanjing, the provincial capital, two prominent institutions – Nanjing University of Science and Technology and Nanjing Tech University – have barred visitors and advised students to remain on campus. A third institutions, Southeast University, also in Nanjing, has opted to reorganize its academic calendar in the face of rising COVID cases. The university has also reportedly delayed registration for new students planning to attend in the coming academic year.

Outside of Jiangsu province, other notable Chinese institutions, such as Tsinghua University and Fudan University, have directed students coming from higher-risk areas within China not to return to campus for the fall term until further notice. Those top universities, along with several others in Beijing, have also deferred registration of new students for the fall semester.

The Chinese response to recent outbreaks this month reflects a looming challenge for institutions in all study destinations in planning for the coming academic year. The issue for many is the growing number of cases associated with the Delta variant, a strain of COVID that has proven to be especially transmissible and fast-spreading, even among those that are fully vaccinated. As University World News reported recently, “The [August 2021] Nanjing outbreak is considered to be the country’s most serious outbreak since the initial outbreak in Wuhan was brought under control.”

China has had a rapid rollout of its COVID vaccination programme and many institutions and schools are requiring students (and all family members in the household) to be fully vaccinated before the student may return to campus this year.

None of those precautions, including the emergency guidance from the Ministry of Education, bodes well for the timely return of foreign students to Chinese campuses this year. As we noted recently, many of those students, including those enrolled in Chinese medical schools or other programmes with significant clinical or laboratory requirements, have been barred from returning to China since early 2020. The students have been lobbying the Chinese government for permission to return for months but without success to this point.

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