As a new university semester begins this month in many parts of East and Southeast Asia, still affected by second and third waves of COVID-19, online courses are still common and there is evidence in several countries that students are opting out for the semester until physical classes resume.
Vaccine roll-outs, which began in February in some countries in Asia, have so far had barely any impact on universities which are still implementing special measures for the coming semester and are likely to continue until at least June. These include socially distanced classes, testing and other measures.
Foreign students are still not allowed into China to resume classes, but even elsewhere in the region, new coronavirus variants emerging in the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa have led to new precautions on allowing in foreigners, including enrolled students.
In Taiwan, students with special permission to enter the country obtained through Taiwanese agencies abroad were exempt from the new tightened regulations on travellers. Taiwan’s Ministry of Education stopped issuing such permits to students in January, after a handful of cases were registered in December, so only those who obtained permits earlier were able to enter the country, Mimi Leung reports.
Most affected are students due to start university courses in Taiwan in the spring semester which has just begun. The start of the spring semester was postponed by a week to 22 February for all universities and colleges as a precaution, although Taiwan’s COVID-19 caseload has been very low by international standards and universities remained open last year.
In January the ministry also advised international students in Taiwan not to leave the country as they could have problems returning.
Although the start of the new semester in China is officially 1 March, many universities are staggering their opening dates for the new semester ‘based on their epidemic situation’.
Universities in ‘medium-and high-risk areas’ were told to delay the opening of the spring semester, Wang Dengfeng, head of the Ministry of Education’s department of physical, health and arts education, said at a news conference on 18 February,
Despite low numbers of coronavirus cases in the country – officially a few dozen nationwide during February, and the National Health Commission in China reporting no new locally transmitted COVID-19 cases in the third week of February – the education ministry in Beijing in a recent notice asked universities to make preparations for online classes.
Although Beijing has seen no new COVID-19 infections in recent weeks and the city has no medium- or high-risk areas, at least 16 universities in Beijing announced they will postpone the start of spring semester campus activities for several weeks, with online teaching being the norm.
Universities in the capital typically have a large proportion of students from other provinces returning after the Lunar New Year break for the new semester, although large numbers remained on campus during the holiday period.
According to the Education Ministry’s figures released on 24 February, some 416,300 university students remained on campuses around China during the February break instead of travelling home to their families.
Beijing Normal University will begin the semester with online teaching and start face-to-face classes after 16 March. At Beijing Jiaotong University and the University of International Business and Economics, Beijing, students will only be able to return to campus in batches from 16-21 March, with physical classes only scheduled after 22 March.
Around 18,000 students at Tsinghua University, Beijing, will return to campus for the new semester after mass testing taking place between 27 February and 6 March.
Universities have been told to prepare equipment, conduct emergency drills and strictly implement epidemic prevention and control measures. According to a ministry directive, all people and items entering universities must be checked. Universities should also conduct routine nucleic acid tests on key groups of people and the environment and frequently sterilise and disinfect important venues, it added.
South Korea saw a major COVID-19 spike in late December, with the caseload much higher than in March 2020, and a smaller spike in the third week of February which meant many universities cannot resume physical classes for the current semester. Graduation ceremonies in the current month are being held online, Aimee Chung reports.
Universities reported large numbers of deferrals and dropouts for the current semester, mainly due to discontent over online teaching but also due to financial hardship.
According to a recent survey conducted by job-recruiting platforms Job Korea and Albamon, 26.4% of 2,373 students said they planned to take leave of absence for the new semester. About 47.2% of first-year students and 44.2% of second-year students said the main reason was “poor quality of online lectures”.
Male students have been opting to take a break from their universities to do their compulsory military service, according to the Military Manpower Administration, with enlistment rates increasing this year.
Foreign student are being allowed into the country, except for students from the UK and South Africa where new variant strains of the COVID-19 virus have spread.
But foreign students entering South Korea for the new semester will need to undergo three COVID tests – before arrival, within a day of arrival in South Korea at a health clinic in the region where they will spend their mandatory quarantine, and a third test before the end of quarantine. Previously only one test was required. The education ministry said foreign students were being encouraged to continue with online courses in their own countries if they can.
According to the ministry, 30,000 foreign students entered South Korea in the second semester of 2020, down 65% from the first semester of 2020 and down 84% from the second semester of 2019.
Japan has seen a third wave of coronavirus since mid-December, pushing it back into the highest level of alert until at least 7 March in at least 11 prefectures, and suspending entry to most non-resident foreign nationals.
The Japanese government on 21 February said a minimum of 5,800 students had dropped out or taken time off from universities and colleges, according to its survey of over 1,000 universities and colleges across Japan. Around 1,367 left permanently between April and December last year. But it suggested government measures may have prevented worse drop-out rates.
Universities starting the semester at the beginning of March are drawing up timetables for increasing the number of in-person classes, but a full return to normal for all universities is still some way off.
Waseda University announced it would increase the number of in-person classes this semester, “preparing to reach the goal of holding 70% of all its classes in-person as of the academic year 2021”. But it added, “If the COVID-19 situation worsens, we will consider holding classes mainly online.”
Most universities have a hybrid system – both online and physical, the proportion varies – for example Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University’s classes are mostly online while University of Tokyo has a mix, Suvendrini Kakuchi reports.
All public and private universities in Afghanistan resume normal classes with physical attendance from 5 March after a government decision to ease coronavirus-related restrictions, the country’s higher education ministry announced earlier this week after months of closure due to the first and second waves of COVID-19, Shadi Khan Saif reports.
The Afghan government was forced to announce the early closure of universities for extended winter holidays across the country amid fears surrounding the second wave of COVID-19 in November last year. The country had just reopened public sector higher education institutions in October for all grades.
The reopening of campuses coincides with the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines which began on 23 February after Afghanistan received 500,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca's vaccine – locally known as Covishield – from India.
According to the ministry, examinations will commence on 4 April, within a month of the resumption of universities, allowing only around four weeks for preparations. The spring semester would then immediately begin on 10 May.
“When the government announced lockdown, we faced unexpected challenges which no one was prepared for,” Shafiullah Naimi, president of the Association of Private Universities and Institutes of Higher Education in Afghanistan, told University World News, referring to the poor technological, financial and legal infrastructures in the country.
The association said it shared several ideas with the government to upgrade the education system, including legalising the concept of virtual studies. “Finally reopening the universities is very happy news for me and it ends a devastating period for the economy and human development at national and international levels,” he said.
Kabul-based private university sociology student, Najib Arman, said he was happy things were getting back to normal, but believed the time lost to lockdown could not easily be recouped.
“Students lost plenty of time, energy and money. I am not confident that it would be compensated, but we need to be prepared to better handle such situations in the future.”
Ruhullah Sarwan, an academic, said the closure of academic institutions in November was not a smart move right from the start. “All other public places were open, just the students were deprived of studies … In Afghanistan, the culture of self-learning and online learning hardly exists, so without reopening universities there is no quick fix to move forward and reform the education system,” he said.
The country’s health ministry said in August last year that at least 10 million Afghans – a third of the population – had been infected with coronavirus, based on antibody tests and a survey conducted by the ministry with the help of the World Health Organization and the Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
However, due to a relatively lower rate of testing and under reporting of cases, Afghanistan’s overall confirmed caseload since the beginning of the pandemic until this month is at 55,000 with a total of 2,438 deaths as of 26 February.
With the country’s high numbers of COVID-19 cases dropping off dramatically since December last year and a vaccine roll-out which began in mid-January with 1.34 million doses administered across the country by 25 February, the University Grants Commission, which is the regulatory body for universities, issued guidelines in early February for the safe reopening of colleges and universities across the country which have been shut since March 2020.
The guidelines include having smaller class sizes in order to maintain proper social distancing. Institutes have also been instructed to restrict activities including visits of outside experts on campuses, study tours, and field works.
The guidelines state: “Before reopening of any campus, the central or the concerned state government must have declared the area safe for reopening of educational institutions.”
The populous northern province of Uttar Pradesh and a number of other states resumed classes on campuses in mid-February for the first time since March 2020. Colleges and universities in Maharashtra, one of the worst-hit states last year, reopened from 15 February with physical classes but with COVID-19 restrictions in place. However, universities in the Maharashtra capital Mumbai did not reopen on the same date and continue with online classes.
Delhi University reopened its campuses from 1 February only for final-year students requiring access to facilities for practical purposes. Delhi has registered the lowest number of cases of COVID-19 in nine months and Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi began a reopening of its campus in November last year.
Bangladesh announced on 22 February that public and private universities in the country will resume in-person classes on 24 May with necessary arrangements in classrooms and student dormitories needing to be completed before 17 May, according to the education ministry.
Online classes will continue until then, and no examinations can take place until classrooms reopen. A decision on schools and colleges will be taken in March.
The government has several times extended the closure of educational institutions which have been closed since last March. In its most recent extension this month the education ministry announced that it would keep all educational institutions closed until 28 February.
Bangladesh’s Education Minister, Dipu Moni, said on 22 February that 1.3 million residential students, 15,000 teachers and 25,000 employees at 53 public universities would be vaccinated before the reopening.
By 22 February around 2.3 million people had been vaccinated in Bangladesh.
Bangladeshi authorities closed all academic institutions across the country on 17 March 2020 following the COVID-19 outbreak, which has claimed a total of 8,356 lives, with 543,717 cases by Monday.
Campus closures are expected to affect most Malaysian students until the third quarter of 2021, with only specific groups, such as those who work in labs or those with no internet access, allowed back into classrooms in March.
The country’s higher education ministry has said six categories of students will be allowed to be physically present at campuses from 1 March to resume hybrid teaching and learning, which includes both physical and online lessons.
They include students enrolled in programmes requiring practical, clinical, studio and workshop training; those without facilities conducive to online learning; foundational level students with campuses able to support hybrid learning; all international students except those from the United Kingdom; special needs students; and students taking the Malaysian University English Test (MUET), as well as international and professional examinations.
The government estimates this is around 30% of the country’s 1.1 million students enrolled in higher education. But institutions have the right to reduce the number of students allowed on campus “according to the current situation and risk assessment”, Cairul Iqbal Mohd Amid, deputy director general of the higher education department at the ministry, said in early February.
Universiti Putra Malaysia said it planned to start the semester with a delay on 22 March and could have a shorter end-of-semester break or change the dates of the October semester.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Iqbal Saripan said: “We could cap on-campus student capacity at 50%, based on requirements of the programmes, especially in courses like medicine and engineering.”
Malaysia is still battling with a third wave of COVID-19 infections that has been responsible for over 200,000 infections.
The Philippines’ Commission on Higher Education (CHED) has approved the return to limited face-to-face classes for students of medicine and allied health sciences, as well as for universities in areas under modified general community quarantine, where students go into COVID-19 hospitals, CHED Chairman Prospero De Vera III said in February.
CHED said other institutions wanting to hold limited physical classes must submit an application. Education authorities will then visit the campus to inspect its compliance with requirements for face-to-face classes.
Among the universities that have been allowed to hold limited face-to-face classes are the University of the Philippines (UP) Manila, Ateneo de Manila University, and the Our Lady of Fatima University in Valenzuela.
In the UP College of Medicine, over 200 students have been on rotation in hospitals for their internships. Around 180 students also returned to hospitals on January 18 for their clinical clerkships, with mass testing carried out for healthcare workers.
“We were pretty confident with our health protocols and this is the reason why I think we are actually confident of getting them back for their face-to-face rotations,” UP College of Medicine Dean Charlotte Chiong said.
Mimi Leung, Writer.
Shadi Khan Saif, Journalist.
Aimee Chung, Writer.
This article was originally published on University World News. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.