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COVID-19 2nd Wave: Vaccine shortage shatters students' plans to study abroad

Border closures and vaccination delays would mean that Indian students eyeing an international degree may be in for some disappointment in 2021.

May 15, 2021 / 09:37 AM IST
For students already enrolled in programmes in places like Australia, the struggles are far worse.

For students already enrolled in programmes in places like Australia, the struggles are far worse.


Zinnia Siddique, a 20-year-old undergraduate student from New Zealand has been back in India since March 2020. She had come back during a semester break but had an extended stay after several members of her family tested positive.

"All of us recovered by May-end 2020. By then, all the borders were shut and classes moved online. I was hoping that I would take the vaccine and go back by February 2021. But, the process didn't begin here until May. I still haven't gotten a slot and now my classes will begin in Auckland and I am stuck here," said Siddiqui.

New Zealand closed its borders as soon as COVID-19 hit in April 2020. This means that international students won't be able to go back to their campuses unless they are fully vaccinated and given a go-ahead by the border authorities.

Amidst the second wave of COVID-19, it is the Indian students who have either come back home or are planning a study-abroad degree that are the worst-hit. Borders are closed across major study locations like the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand especially for Indian travellers.

This has hit students studying in international universities as well as those planning to go abroad in 2021 for higher education.

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This decision has been taken after a COVID-19 variant called B.1.617 was discovered in India.

As on 8am on May 14, India had 344,144 new reported COVID-19 cases and 4,000 deaths. This took the total case tally to 24 million and deaths to 262,317.

The rise in cases and deaths has led to other countries taking a tough view, even as individual universities want fully-vaccinated students to be allowed.

Take Australia for instance. A new poll commissioned by the Sydney Policy Lab has found the majority of Australians support a careful reopening of international borders once more people are vaccinated, and from countries where the COVID-19 pandemic is under control.

Here, 54 percent support entry of international students where they are fully vaccinated and subject to university-provided quarantine.

Oliver Lobo, a 21-year-old engineering student from Chennai was eyeing an Earth Sciences course in Australia. But, now he has been forced to drop his plans with the delay in vaccination.

"What is the point of getting admission if I won't even be allowed to go study there? Online classes are fine but that is not what I will settle for. If I am making a significant investment, what is the point of sitting in India and studying," said Lobo.

His Plan B now is to pursue a Masters degree from Delhi University. But, Lobo still has some hope left and is looking to get fully vaccinated in the next four months and request for a late semester entry in November.

For students already enrolled in programmes in places like Australia, the struggles are far worse.

Piyali Dasgupta*, a Masters' degree candidate in Melbourne has been unable to return back to her course with the borders shut.

She has taken her first dose of vaccine in Mumbai but is disappointed over the lack of clarity on her going back to complete her course.

"I have been back in India since December. We were initially told that some chartered flights would be arranged for us to go back in February 2021. But, that never happened. What I understand is that the universities there are open to getting students back but it is the government that is undecided," she added.

While Dasgupta has been attending online classes, she admits that it doesn't have the same rigour as physical lectures since the former involves a lot of recorded lectures.

In countries like the United States - where exceptions have been given for the international student community - it is not a blanket approval for entry.

"The F-1 student category is not automatically exempt. It is the US visa authorities that will give an approval to students on a case-to-case basis," said Mayank Oberoi, a study-abroad consultant based in Delhi.

This means that Indian students pursuing a course in the US on a valid F-1 visa but back home on a temporary basis may find it tough to go back. For new entrants, issuance of student visas would be far tougher.

As of 7am on May 14, India administered 3.9 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines to those between 18-44 years of age.

However, due to a shortage, states like Maharashtra and Karnataka have suspended vaccination for the 18-44 years age group till further notice. For Indian students eyeing that international degree, the wait is only getting longer.

*Name changed on request
M Saraswathy is a business journalist with 10 years of reporting experience. Based in Mumbai, she covers consumer durables, insurance, education and human resources beat for Moneycontrol.
first published: May 15, 2021 09:37 am

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