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Review of student experience in 2021

Much like 2020, this year has been hard on international students. We saw a continuation of the chaos and confusion caused by the pandemic, with those who wished to study abroad having to navigate an ever-changing picture of travel restrictions and vaccine and quarantine requirements.

Photo: The PIE News

International students were having to defer places to Canadian institutions and study online after not having their study permits processed in time

The situation for students trying to reach Australia is worth special attention. Students hoping to return to the country have had an extraordinarily difficult time.

Students argued online courses were not up to scratch, communication between students, authorities and universities was poor

However, the impact of all of the pandemic on the welfare of students all around the world has been severe. Over the course of the year the PIE wrote numerous stories about the mental health challenges faced by students. The summary of these articles below makes for difficult, but important reading.

Reaching campuses

At the start of 2021 there was a mixed picture as to which countries would allow students back onto campuses. Where there was a relaxation of restrictions, policies weren’t always straightforward.

For example, in February Latvia announced that international students would be able to travel to the country. However, this was only possible if their educational institution had issued a written confirmation saying that it was necessary for them to enter the country.

Some countries such as China had decided they would not allow international students back into the country. In response, international students mobilised and formed the China International Student Union to campaign for better support and communication from the Chinese authorities.

However, despite their campaign, the students remained frustrated by the Chinese government’s approach.

“First, as [the] Covid-19 situation remains severe, all countries are taking prevention and containment measures based on their own conditions,” said spokesperson Wang Wenbin.

“This is to protect the safety and health of all citizens, including students. I’m sure everyone will understand this. Second, we hope the international community will strengthen anti-epidemic cooperation to win the fight as soon as possible so that students can return to campus sooner rather than later.

“Third, on the precondition of observing containment protocols, the Chinese authorities will study in a coordinated manner the matter of allowing foreign students to come back for their studies and maintain communication with relevant parties.”

But students argued online courses were not up to scratch, communication between students, authorities and universities was poor, and that they were being banned from the country while certain other categories of visa holders could return.

Later on in April, we reported that international students were having trouble accessing their belongings, which were stuck in China. Students described landlords and universities emptying their rooms. While some institutions made efforts to help students repatriate their belongings, most told them their friends must do it.

There were also issues for those studying in countries that hadn’t outright banned travel. In February, international students seeking to study in Québec, Canada were facing “extreme stress” as a result of delays in study visa issuance and extra checks being made relating to certain institutions in this Canadian province, after processing was suspended at the end of 2020.

To help mitigate the “myriad challenges” faced by students as a result of the pandemic, the Canadian government said that international students completing their entire Canadian higher education program online from abroad would still be eligible for post-graduation work permits.

As the situation with Covid-19 changed, so did the challenges faced by international students. India was added to the UK’s red list for travel, which caused concern around quarantine requirements and restrictions. In the face of much disruption agents advised students to hedge their bets and prepare alternative back-up study options.

Throughout the year the same barriers to international travel continued. In June, the US government said that they did not expect to “quickly resume” full operating capacity for their visa processing services.

There were also new considerations that international students had to contend with. As countries started to roll out their vaccination programs, there was much debate around whether students should be vaccinated before they returned to campuses.

This led to the question of vaccine eligibility. Not all vaccines were equal in the eyes of institutions and so there was confusion as to which vaccines would be accepted.

Students and agents in India sought clarifications on vaccine requirements in popular study destinations, particularly around the India-developed Covaxin and Russia’s Sputnik V vaccines that had been administered across the country.

Research from IDP in July found that students were willing to comply with vaccine and quarantine policies, so that they could get to campuses. But with no universal standard and institutions choosing their own policies in countries such as Canada and the US, students had to face yet more confusion.

Institutions did not have an easy job on their hands. Alongside the challenges around vaccines, they had to think about where they were going to put students who needed to isolate themselves on arrival. In the UK, there was concern that there would not be enough hotels to meet demand when students arrived.

The pressure for both students and institutions increased as the Autumn term drew near. Charter flights from Hong Kong to the UK saw high demand from Chinese students trying to reach university campuses, with one flight selling out in 30 minutes.

Governments around the world did what they could to try and help. The US government announced that select international students intending to arrive in the US for studies in 2021 would be eligible for interview waivers.

But confusion continued in some countries such as the UK, where education stakeholders sought to clarify rules for incoming students from India, after the British government added India’s Covishield program to its approved vaccines for travel.

Unfortunately, the same old issues kept coming up for Canada. In September, we reported that international students were having to defer places to Canadian institutions and study online after not having their study permits processed in time for the Autumn semester.

And international students were still trying to find a way back into China. The China International Student Union started a new campaign on November 1 to lobby officials for a date when students would be allowed to enter the country.

In December it seemed that their efforts could be rewarded- at least for students in certain regions. Malaysia’s foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, told local media that the country is “among [the] top priority countries in China’s pilot project for return of international students to China” following a meeting in Huzhou with Wang Yi, China’s minister of foreign affairs, earlier this month.

Australia 

The experience of international students at Australian institutions has been defined by the government’s decision to close borders. Throughout the year students have had to sit and wait as law makers have tried to establish a date when a return to campuses could take place.

It has been a rollercoaster ride for students- schemes were introduced giving much hope, changes have been made at the last minute, money has been lost and some have had their mental health severely impacted.

There were around 30% – approximately 164,000 – of Australia’s 542,106 student visa holders stuck outside of the country.

The year kicked off with a warning from both the state premier and federal education minister saying it was unlikely that students would be allowed back in any significant numbers in 2021. This was despite the fact that there had been plans suggesting the opposite that had been detailed in late 2020.

In February we reported how the cabinet had failed to provide a timeline for international student return to Australia. At that point there were around 30% – approximately 164,000 – of Australia’s 542,106 student visa holders stuck outside of the country.

Next, Australia’s federal education minister said that the country would not see a return of international students en masse until 2022.

The psychological impact on students of these policies soon became apparent. A survey from the Council of International Students Australia found that international students unable to enter Australia were suffering from depression, anxiety and thoughts of self-harm.

However, in June there was some good news. A new plan to allow international students to return to South Australia was approved by SA Health. Then, in the same month a plan to bring international students back to South Australia in 2021 was approved by the country’s federal government.

From then on in, the government worked hard to establish exactly how it would get students back safely into the country. They considered testing a ‘green light/ red light’ border system to allow vaccinated travellers into the country.

Eventually Australia recognised China’s Sinovac and India’s Covishield as vaccines for travellers arriving in the country. The prime minister said that borders would open from November, with a system that prioritised the re-entry of Australians.

The scene was set for the return of international students. Things were starting to happen. In October the Australian state of Victoria submitted plans to the federal government to allow 120 international students to return per week, with institutions covering $5,000 hotel quarantine costs and students paying for flights. Shortly after the Australian government accepted these plans.

Towards the end of November, the federal government of Australia finally put a date on the country’s borders opening for vaccinated students, giving students what stakeholders describe as a “clear pathway” to arriving on the country’s shores. From  December 1, fully vaccinated student visa holders would be eligible to arrive in Australia without needing to apply for a travel exemption.

The relief of international students and stakeholders was significant. Students began booking flights and organising accommodation. Then, following the spread of the Omicron variant, the government announced it would pause the reopening of the border until December 15.

“It will impact me with around $2,000 AUD. Needless to mention the enormous mental torture it brings”

Students faced serious financial difficulties as a result of the decision.

“I had my booking for December 7. I had resigned from my job. My family had their plans set for one last trip before I left and paid for a house lease in Sydney,” said Deepesh, a student at the University of Wollongong.

“My sister had booked her tickets from Melbourne to Sydney, to meet me. And now, it leaves me nowhere at all. Literally all of it down the gutter. It will impact me with around $2,000 AUD. Needless to mention the enormous mental torture it brings.”

While it seemed as if students would once again be thrown into a state of uncertainty, happily the return of some students did come soon after. The first cohort of international students landed in Sydney under the pilot plan of the state of New South Wales in Australia. The 250 students arriving in the state’s capital hailed from over 15 nations including Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea, China and Canada.

Mental health and financial hardship

The incredible uncertainty caused by the pandemic has had a devastating impact on both students’ mental health and their financial security. Just like 2020, young people who had dreams to study abroad, found their futures hanging in the balance.

At the start of 2020 international students in the UK were facing serious financial hardship – with some using food banks – after finding themselves unable to get work during lockdown.

In the UK thousands of hardship fund applications made by international students at UK universities were rejected during Covid-19

To make matters worse, in the UK thousands of hardship fund applications made by international students at UK universities were rejected during Covid-19, The PIE News learnt after making a series of FOI requests.

There were government initiatives and funding that was made available for students who needed support. But the mental health of students in the UK still suffered.

The UK was not the only country where this was the case- all over the world we heard concerning stories of students who were suffering. International students unable to get into Australia were at particular risk given their circumstances.

Some 93% of international students stranded overseas experienced significant mental health issues, according to a report by the Council of International Students Australia.

In January the Victorian coroner recommended better coordination of mental health and wellbeing support of international students studying in the state, and more ready access to mental health treatment, following the suicide deaths of 47 students over a 10 year period.

In Canada visa processing delays led to students taking medication for depression, with one student saying that they were suicidal.

“This entire situation has been so miserable – and nobody has been held accountable,” an Indian student who did not want to be named told The PIE.

“You wouldn’t believe what has been happening. Students have been taking antidepressants. Our parents have been suffering too,” she said.

In New Zealand students stopped reporting their poor mental health because they feared their visa statuses would be affected if they did so.

This was truly a global issue with students being affected across the world. In March we reported that a “substantial number” of international students in the Netherlands were struggling with anxiety, loneliness and were dissatisfied with social life because of Covid-19.

Despite the challenges posed by the situation with Covid-19 and government policies, members of the global education community intervened where they could to try and support students.

Higher education providers looked to adopt ongoing, personalised check-ins to support international students’ mental health and wellbeing – including services introduced during the global health crisis – to their provisions beyond the pandemic.

And the ISANA International Education Association, a representative body for international education professionals in Australia and New Zealand, partnered with The Story Is Connection, to engage New South Wales’s international students around the challenges that have impacted their mental health and wellbeing.

Despite the efforts of many in the sector, more will need to be done to help support international students- especially when we know so little about how the future is likely to unfold. Much of this work will start with the sector listening to students to better understand what they are going through.

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