In February 2020, Stephen Yiadom was about to board a plane from Accra, Ghana back to China, where he was studying management and engineering, when he heard an announcement that his flight was canceled. Two years later, he’s still waiting to hear from Chinese officials and his university when he can return.
In 2020, hundreds of thousands of foreign students enrolled in universities outside their home country largely spent that year studying online. But in 2021, many countries announced plans to allow overseas students to return, including Australia, which had some of the world’s strictest travel rules for much of the pandemic.
But China is still following a covid policy aimed at keeping cases as close to zero as possible. This week, it imposed a seven-day lockdown in its tech hub of Shenzhen, after an outbreak of less than 100 cases. Against this backdrop, it hasn’t allowed most students back, and has offered no clarity about when it will. Now many of them face a stark choice—keep waiting, or abandon their degrees and start again from zero.
“This complete ban is surprising and frustrating,” said Yiadom, who is now in the PhD phase of his program at Jiangsu University. “We have other colleagues who are studying in different countries other than China—in the US, in the UK, in the EU—they have been allowed to go back for on campus studies. But we are still back home.”
China, itself a top source of foreign students to the US and the UK, has also been building itself into a destination for students, particularly from low and middle-income countries.
“Training future generations of intellectuals, technicians, and political elites from other nations is a subtle yet important form of soft power,” wrote Yang Rui, then lecturer of education at Australia’s Monash University, in an overview note on China’s growing soft power in education in 2007. “This was the role of Great Britain at its imperial zenith and of the United States ever since the 1950s, and now China increasingly fills this role.”
According to China’s ministry of education, just before the pandemic hit, nearly half a million foreign students were studying in China, 60% of them from Asian countries, with South Korea the top source of students in the region; another 16% came from African nations.While many students enroll in language courses, an increasing number are pursuing higher degrees in STEM subjects, or in management. A slew of services has sprung up online offering to help foreign students enroll in graduate degrees or in English-language medical programs accredited to accept foreign students. And while some students secure scholarships, most pay their own way, often relying on family savings or loans.
“Most people who want to go for medical education know that China, Philippines, and Russia are cheap alternatives for India,” said Indian student Venkat Reddy. “Since 10th grade, I knew China is an option if I don’t get a seat in India.”
His program at Jilin University costs under $8,000 a year for tuition and living expenses, and while that is a lot of money for his family, prior to the pandemic it seemed well worth it. “I never expected China to be so advanced in the way they teach Western sciences,” he said.
For Md Al Hasibuzzaman, who left Bangladesh to begin his medical degree at Ningbo University in 2016, studying in China was similarly an eye-opening experience of the country’s advancement. His Google drive is full of photos of him on the Ningbo campus, in the cafeteria with fellow students, with professors at a hospital, and celebrating the spring festival.
“China was my dream,” he said. “China gave me a better understanding of the new world, how people can think. I have right now many other views than a Bangladeshi student who didn’t go abroad.”
Students told Quartz they understood China’s decision to close its borders in 2020, as many countries did when little was known about the virus and vaccines didn’t yet exist. But since last year China has begun allowing in select foreign professionals, with strict quarantine requirements, and this year it hosted the Winter Olympics. Now, say students, they are puzzled about why they haven’t been called back, or why their universities have been slow to reply to their queries.
A group called the China International Students Union, set up in January 2021 to advocate on this issue, has written to China’s foreign ministry, and encouraged students to tweet their experiences under the hashtag #TakeUsBacktoChina, prompting some Chinese officials to respond.
China’s foreign ministry has said it attaches high importance to foreign students, and this week said it is coordinating the return of a small number of students with “actual needs,” possibly following through on a pledge made to Pakistan’s prime minister last month. And a handful of prestigious programs, such as NYU Shanghai, have reportedly been cleared to receive some international students. But for most students, the government’s assurances have not turned into concrete steps.
“We expect a bit of compassion from the Chinese government or universities,” said Reddy. “They act like there’s no urgency to resolve the issue—that hurts the most.”
When Yiadom logged on to the DingTalk platform in May 2020 to face quizzing from a thesis defense panel of five professors at Jiangsu University, it didn’t go well. He kept having to rejoin because of network problems. The defense panel couldn’t hear answers to his questions, and he ran out of time. It was only thanks to his professor’s intervention, who explained the technical glitches Yiadom was facing, that he made it through.
Now pursuing his PhD, which focuses on occupational safety, he can’t follow the hands-on elements of the program, such as equipment demonstrations and company visits. When the professor brings in a piece of equipment to show the class, he often isn’t even able to get a good look at it online.
“Very, very frustrating,” said Stephen. “And you don’t know your way forward, whether to go on or not to go on because everything is stagnant, you are left alone to do everything yourself.”
Mexican student Raúl Pineda, who is enrolled in an engineering program specializing in nuclear technology, had imagined a future as a liaison between Chinese nuclear companies and power projects in Mexico. But his research is also at a dead end, since he’s not able to access the specialized software for his research from Mexico.
“I can do nothing. I am checking my options in Taiwan, Canada, the US,” said Tanqueda. “I will have to begin again probably.”
The situation is particularly dire for medical students. There were as many as 70,000 of them in the country in 2018, according to one estimate, while Indian news reports put those from India at around 20,000.
The fourth and fifth years involve clinical coursework and bedside training, and the final year is for a hospital rotation. Students who were in their fourth year or later when the pandemic hit, therefore, missed out on crucial hand-on training. In addition, some schools in China require students to complete all parts of their course and internship within eight years.
Meanwhile, local rules are confounding students’ efforts to salvage their medical degrees in their home countries. One Indian state, for example, has said it won’t allow students who finished their final medical exams online to do local internships.
An online survey of more than 1,100 medical students by education researchers from three Chinese universities found that about 60% reported their online connections as “poor to average,” while about half said they couldn’t count on an uninterrupted electricity supply.
For Hasibuzzaman, this is a make-or-break year. He completed his fifth year of studies online. But he should now be doing a year of practical training at a hospital so that he could graduate in May with the medical degree his family scraped and saved for. The chances of him being able to get an internship in Bangladesh or another country, he says, are slim.
“I don’t know what will happen with my whole career, my whole life, if I cannot go back to China,” said Hasibuzzaman. “Everyone is waiting for that. If they cannot go back in one year, they will maybe never be a doctor.”