China and Japan keep borders shut as new term starts

International students have been left hanging once again as summer vacations end and yet another new term starts in China and Japan without them.  

The students – many of whom come from the Global South – had high hopes for a return in September, as vaccination levels have risen globally. However, there is still no news from the two Asian giants, which had collectively enrolled 800,000 international students in 2019 but have mostly kept borders closed since early 2020.  

In China, the academic year will begin in September without most foreign students, many of whom recently received notices from universities asking them to defer another year. Exceptions were made for only a few groups, including South Koreans and those at some foreign joint-venture programmes. The presumption now is that the border will be shut through the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. 

In Japan, foreign students continue to be blocked, this time from universities’ second term, which begins in September or October.

Both cohorts enrolled in China and Japan have been lobbying governments, embassies, NGOs and universities for their return.

This month, a group claiming to represent 7,000 Pakistani students enrolled at Chinese schools appealed to Beijing’s ambassador in Pakistan. A large number are medical students or postgraduate researchers who cannot graduate without time in teaching hospitals or labs.

One of those students told Times Higher Education that he had begun research at a Chinese university in 2017 and was supposed to graduate in 2021. However, he went home to Pakistan in 2020 during the pandemic and has been locked out since.

His supervisor – who is “holding” three of his manuscripts, which will not be sent for publication until his lab work is done – said that he was not “responsible” for border closure delays.

While this young chemist was granted an exemption until summer 2022, that does him no good if the border remains closed. He added that his school had offered him no mental health or financial support. 

“If I cannot go back to China and meet the requirements of SCI journal papers, I will not get my degree,” he told THE. “My efforts will be wasted and my life will be ruined. My spirit is dark right now.” 

Curtis Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, told THE that “students who have been locked out of studies due to Covid-19 travel restrictions continue to deserve greater compassion, consistency and transparency of treatment, as well as open and honest communications − whether it’s from educational authorities in China, Japan or elsewhere”.

“China’s image, in particular as a global partner in education, is likely to be hurt in the near to medium term as that nation’s inconsistency in dealing with international students from different nations continues to play out, especially on social media,” he added.

Jacques Wels, a research fellow at UCL, has studied the mental and financial impact of Japan’s border closure, in a paper published as a preprint for the Metices Centre at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.

“Nobody knows what is going to happen in the coming weeks or months,” he told THE. “The silence from the Japanese authorities…is in contradiction with the ambitions of the Japanese government, which wants to attract more international students.”

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