There are some very mixed messages coming out of universities in the Western world as they struggle to overcome uncertainty about the safe reopening of campuses after months of COVID-19 lockdowns
It is bad enough for home students, unsure whether they will have to start the new academic year as they finished the last one – relying on online teaching and limited social interaction with their lecturers and peers.
But what about international students, currently living half-a-world away and unsure whether travel restrictions will be lifted in time and unable to sort out visas and residence permits because embassies are still partially closed?
Will they feel safe leaving their families in India or China or wherever and signing-up for an expensive three or four years studying for degree course in a country like the United States, where the handling of campuses reopening has been described as “chaotic” by John Jibilian, director of higher education at Deloitte.
He told a webinar hosted by Times Higher Education and Salesforce.org on 23 July that American universities were changing their plans to return to face-to-face teaching and opting for online teaching instead as a result of local outbreaks of COVID-19. And that’s despite the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement casting doubt over which foreign students will be allowed in if their courses are taught wholly online.
Cautious approach in Norway
No wonder institutions in some countries have decided it may be in everyone’s best interests to “revoke admission” to applicants from outside the region until the coronavirus is under control.
That’s what at least one Norwegian university, Oslo Metropolitan or OsloMet, has done, as I discovered when working on a report for University World Newson the different approaches to reopening campuses among European higher education institutions.
OsloMet’s spokeswoman Ingvild Straumetold me their decision effects non-EU students on its master’s degree programmes taught in English and was made because of uncertainty over visa and travel restrictions for many students from around the world.
All incoming and outgoing student exchanges have also been abandoned for the autumn semester 2020 as a precaution against spreading the virus, said Ingvild.
Norwegian universities are among the first in Europe to reopen after the summer vacation, with OsloMet starting its new academic year on 11 August, so there was added urgency to clarify the position for international applicants.
The University of Oslo has already declared that the first semester of its international master’s degree programmes will be offered online, with the hope that overseas students will be able to travel to Norway from January 2021 for the second semester of their studies.
Less clarity in Sweden
The picture is less clear over the border in Sweden.
Eva Lena Rodriguez, senior coordinator for international marketing and student recruitment at Linköping University, told me the priority was to support first year students, including those from abroad.
“Providing it can be done safely and with no crowds, we will give first year students access to university facilities. But many international students are having trouble with residence permits to allow them to enter Sweden because of lockdowns in other countries and embassies being closed or partially closed.”
“In Pakistan, for instance, admitted students are being offered interview time slots long after the start of the semester in Sweden.
“So, while we welcome all students, both degree and exchanges and EU and non-EU, for reasons outside our control we expect many no shows, especially among non-EU students,” said Eva Lena.
Extra pressure on UK universities
In the United Kingdom, like Sweden – but unlike Norway where tuition is free to both home and foreign students – there is the extra pressure of universities relying on the substantial international student tuition fees.
While university studies in Sweden are free for Swedish and EU/EEA citizens, international students pay quite hefty tuition fees. At Linköping, these vary from SEK 80,000 and SEK 136,000 (£7,000 to £12,000) per academic year depending on the programme.
At prestigious UK institutions, like the University of Manchester, international students from outside Europe can easily be charged more than twice as much and it is no secret that their tuition fees help to subsidise research and other university activities.
Manchester’s vice-chancellor, Professor Nancy Rothwell was crystal clear in a message to staff on the university’s website about the damage that would be caused if international students stay away, or find it impossible to travel to the UK and reject the offer of being taught online while in their own country.
She fears that Manchester could lose around half its international students as bookings for residence are “well below expectations” despite acceptances from international students currently above last year.
And while Swedish and Norwegian universities count international students in their hundreds, universities like Manchester and others in the prestigious British Russell Group enrol thousands of overseas students each year.
COVID-19 flare-ups in Europe
So, while we see cases of COVID-19 flare-up in many European locations, with Northern Spain and Belgium among the latest to consider lockdown-type measures to halt the spread of the virus, it is not surprising that European universities and their counterparts in the United States are having to work overtime to reassure students (and staff) that they can safely reopen campuses this autumn.
In the US, John Jibilian told the Times Higher-Salesforcewebinar that fears of a second wave of the coronavirus coinciding with the peak of the flu season had already prompted several universities to consider starting the new academic year a little earlier and finishing the first semester around Thanksgiving Day celebrations on 26 November.
Safety first and the quarantine question
There are plenty of concrete steps that education establishments should be taking apart from simply offering online learning to make both students and staff safer while the coronavirus prevents a return to the ‘old normal’.
Quarantining arrivals from COVID-19 hot-spots appears so obvious, I’m surprised so little is said about how this might be achieved on open campuses!
Trevor Payne, director of estates at the University of Birmingham in the UK, did mention “challenges around quarantine and around early arrivals” during the Times Higher-Salesforce webinar.
He stressed the need for good communications and clear guidance in respect to accommodation and made sensible suggestions about looking beyond the classroom setting and not just putting face visors on teachers and getting students to wearing masks during teaching.
Simple things could make all the difference, such as staggering the start and finishing times to avoid all the students discharging into corridors and moving from one building to another at the same time, he said.
What about teaching on Saturday mornings?
Could teaching start an hour earlier and finish early evening if big class sizes were split in two? And how would students and staff react to the prospect of teaching on Saturday mornings if it meant schools and universities could safely return to face-to-face teaching, albeit in smaller groups.
There’s still plenty to be decided and most importantly properly communicated to the staff and students involved!
Universities are clearly focused on how social distancing might work in practice, as Times Higher journalist Seeta Bhardwa reported when looking at a number of university recovery plans on 2 July 2020.
Loughborough University in the UK talking about smaller group teaching and the University of Toronto pledged access to 24-hour mental health support for international students and said residences would remain open for students who were unable to return home, including international students who faced travel restrictions.
University of Melbourne in Australia, an area which has been suffering from a spike in COVID-19 cases since Seeta’s report, already said it would transition to a virtual campus for the upcoming academic year.
But while almost everyone is promising extra hygiene measures and student support services, will it be enough to convince parents and students in countries such as China that the benefits and experience of studying abroad outweigh the undeniable risks?
We’ll have to wait until the new academic year to find out!
In a COVID-19 update, published on 28 July 2020, Loughborough University announced that it is “committed to provide quarantine accommodation where required for overseas students who are contracted to our University Halls of Residence for 2020 intake”.
- More from the webinar and what other Nordic and UK universities are planning in my report for University World News ‘Will international students be allowed back this autumn?’ 24 July 2020.
Main image shows the Hanshaugen district of Oslo near OsloMet’s largest campus. Photo: Benjamin A. Ward, OsloMet