Pradeep Rao (name changed) knows he is lucky. The second-year MBBS student at Hebei University in China was among the Indian students who returned home in January after the impact of the deadly coronavirus outbreak became public.
But now a month later, Rao is again worried. He doesn't know when he can go back to the university and complete his degree. With every passing day, he fears about a delay. While he is back home in Vijaywada, there is no clarity on when he would be able to resume classes at the university.
"There was a holiday for the Chinese New Year which has now been extended. I did receive a message from the university that 'we will meet soon'. However, when is the question,” says Rao over the phone from his hometown Vijaywada.
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While several Indian students from China are in India since they were on a new year break, a few were left back since they were either finishing a course or had internships.
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Since then the outbreak seems to have slowed down in China, and is now spreading fast in countries such as Italy, Iran, South Korea and Japan, for students there is little respite.
Considering that March/April is when one semester ends and students break for the summers, suspension of classes across affected regions is a matter of concern.
What happens to students in China?
As far as China is concerned, several Indian students are part of the quarantine facility in China. Those students who have returned to India are unclear about when the academic session will start. But the situation is not as grim as it looks.
Universities are fast catching on to the online education system to ensure that classes are continued, at least partially.
Rao told Moneycontrol that his university started offering online classes for certain modules from March 2 onwards.
Medical courses are the most popular in China. Almost 85 percent of the Indian students studying in China are enrolled into MBBS and allied programmes.
The most popular institutes in China among Indians are Hebei University, Shihezi University, Shanghai University and Qingdao University.
Classes have been suspended across universities in China till further notice from the government. A direct impact would be that the academic calendar would get stretched.
This is because for courses like MBBS, large portion of the course programme involves practical training. This cannot be replaced by distance education. Overseas education firms are of the view that semester-end breaks would also be cancelled or cut short to make up for lost time.
Moneycontrol sent an email to all the institutes mentioned above seeking clarity on the academic situation, but did not receive any response.
Adarsh Khandelwal, co-founder of Study Abroad consulting firm said that China has responded admirably to the coronavirus outbreak and attempted to contain the casualties and infections in every possible manner.
“The overseas students studying at universities have been sent home. Thereby, students presently studying there have been affected with a likely extension in the duration of completion of their study programs. Universities are exploring options to strengthen qualitative online teaching in an attempt to fulfill their commitment to the students,” he added.
Sarvanan Krishnan, another Indian student from Tamil Nadu studying microbiology in Hong Kong said that there is no communication from either the government or the institutes on who are the persons affected and for how long classes will be suspended.
"We interact with everyone from the librarian to the canteen supervisor to the head professor. Shouldn't there be clarity on if there any suspected carriers of the virus. Also, why not give a tentative deadline to help us understand when classes will resume," he added.
His college friend Avantika Bansal was lucky. She was part of an exchange-programme of a Singapore-based institute, in China and Italy. However, this was immediately cancelled when COVID-19 started to spread and Bansal was able to leave on time. This module that was missed due to cancellation of the exchange programme could be taken in some other country.
How will this impact China as an education destination?
Khandelwal said that China is a highly preferred and acclaimed education hub for international students. There will be an impact on the foreign student inflow into China ahead of the peak season of March/April when students typically choose their study destination abroad.
“The coronavirus outbreak is likely to have a deterrent effect, especially since the choice of destination for studying overseas is strongly impacted by concerns regarding safety of the students,” explained Khandelwal/
Among those who have applied, there seems to be some uncertainty. A Mumbai-based education consultant said that there are parents who want to withdraw applications sent to Chinese universities.
“We have asked individuals to wait till April before taking a decision to withdraw applications made for studying in China,” he added.
What about other countries?
Among the affected regions of COVID-19, Italy is another popular education destination for students. An estimated 4,500 Indians are studying across various programmes in Italy with programmes like design, architecture and fine arts among the most common fields of study.
A report stated that 85 Indian students are stranded in Italy and have sent an SOS to New Delhi.
Srividya Shankar who is pursuing an architecture course from a leading institute in Pavia, Italy received news that classes have been suspended due to a possible infection in the region.
However, she is now in a fix as Shankar is not sure whether to return to her hometown Chennai or stay back.
“We don’t know how long the suspension of lectures would continue. Flights to India from here (one-way) are upwards of Rs 28,000. I am not too sure what to do,” she said.
Other institutes like Sapienza University of Rome has suspended classes for one particular course. This was after a student’s father tested positive.
In an emailed response to Moneycontrol, the university said that it is implementing the protective measures issued by the Italian Health Authorities against the COVID-19. To date, it said that the competent authorities have not suspended services and educational activities.
However from March 2, 2020, until further notice from competent authorities, Regione Lazio Health Department has suspended, as a precautionary measure, all the lectures/lessons of the Informatics Bachelors Programme (year one).
“One of the students enrolled in the course belongs to the family who is currently under observation at the Spallanzani Hospital in Rome. The educational activities will continue at a later time following specific procedures that will be communicated to the students. The course’s lecture room has been already sanitized,” said the university in a response.
Exchange programmes are either being deferred or cancelled. The National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and the Singapore Management University (SMU) have suspended student exchanges to universities in Italy, due to the rise in COVID-19 cases there.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak comes right ahead of the new academic year, a drastic change is expected in the way study destinations are chosen. COVID-19 nations are expected to fall out of the top 10 list of preferred countries.
Among other countries, Japan, Iran and South Korea are popular destinations for student exchange programmes of South-East and European institutes. Due to the outbreak of the disease, these programmes have been deferred since this is considered 'non-essential travel'.