City lockdowns hinder Chinese students’ study abroad plans

The COVID-19-related lockdowns affecting many major Chinese cities present ongoing hurdles not only for international students hoping to return to China, but also for those Chinese students planning to study overseas in the coming weeks as they cannot leave their cities to complete the necessary procedures.

Local residential community officials who hold sway over who can enter and leave certain areas are reportedly refusing permission to leave residences to even those with pressing paperwork to complete for study abroad applications. This is despite the fact that study abroad is one of the priority areas for those seeking exemptions from some Zero-COVID rules.

After China imposed restrictions in May on Chinese citizens leaving the country, refusing to grant exit permits, students with acceptance letters from universities abroad were considered an exception and allowed to leave.

However, according to Caixin, an economic daily, despite no COVID cases being reported for at least seven days in the Sichuan neighbourhood of a student it named only as ‘Ding’, who has applied to a university in the United Kingdom, she had not been able to leave the neighbourhood to go to the visa centre.

A government statement said each household can arrange for one person with a negative nucleic acid test result to go out once a day to shop for supplies, while those who need to go out for medical or other ‘special’ reasons must seek permission from their residential committee. However, it did not specify whether study abroad could be counted as a special reason.

Uncertainty over travel requests

Another student in an area in the Sichuan capital Chengdu, deemed to be at low risk of COVID-19, was unable to get the go-ahead from her residential committee and said neither the committee nor the property management appeared to know how to handle travel requests from students intending to go abroad. She noted that students in higher risk areas would have struggled even more.

Ding is one of many students in Sichuan facing trouble getting to their overseas university as the provincial capital Chengdu has been cut off by lockdowns and travel bans, according to Caixin. This has been compounded by a 6.8 magnitude earthquake which hit the region on 5 September, bringing down powerlines and killing at least 66, according to early tallies.

Ding said she faces financial losses of nearly CNY400,000 (US$57,500) in tuition fees, accommodation and other fees and would probably have to wait until September 2023 to take up her place if she is unable to get to the UK in time.

The Beijing Overseas Study Service Association (BOSSA), which groups university recruitment agents and study abroad companies, told University World News it had no data on the number of students in China unable to obtain overseas visas and complete other procedures in time to take up study abroad places.

“We believe that families and students managed to apply as early as they possibly could, in anticipation of these potential hindrances. And we haven’t received any negative reports about this issue, not even from agent members,” said Jon Santangelo, a spokesperson in the international department of BOSSA and the countrywide China Overseas Study Service Alliance (COSSA).

China has not reported a total number of outbound students since the start of the pandemic. A Ministry of Education report, Studying Abroad Guideline 2022, recommended that students apply for multiple programmes in more than one country and be prepared for remote learning. The guideline also points to international politics and visa policies as factors affecting students’ choices.

Even before the latest lockdowns, visa backlogs were a common problem at embassies and consulates of countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States, which are popular study abroad destinations.

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