Nepali students enrolled in Chinese universities left in the lurch

Rakshya Khadka

Rakshya Khadka

Nepali students enrolled in Chinese universities left in the lurch

International students are struggling to understand the yardsticks the Chinese government is using to protect its citizens

When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in Wuhan in December 2019, the first response of authorities in China was to seal the city. As the virus spread, similar measures were adopted all over the mainland. The safety of Chinese citizens was prioritized and foreign nationals were asked to leave.

Among those sent home were over half a million international students from 196 countries. In due course, Nepali students in China also returned home on evacuation flights. Those already home on their winter break were told to cancel their return tickets. The notice was clear: Stay put where it is safe and trust the authorities.

Around 18 months have passed since and international students have yet to return to China. Despite their online classes, students belonging to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) majors have been unable to attend lab classes, severely limiting their education. Students whose final year exams are due soon fear that their degrees will be invalid. A huge number of international students in China are pursuing medical education and lack of practical learning prevents them from finishing the required credits to graduate.

Arya Sigdel, a Biology major, came home to Nepal on her winter break last January. Ten days into her vacation, her university told her to stay put until further notice. “Some of my friends had even left their laptops and books in their dorms. We were supposed to be gone only for a month,” she says. A month turned into 18. Sigdel’s four-year-course is halfway done and she has yet to receive necessary lab credits needed for graduation.

Sigdel’s plight is one shared by over 3,000 Nepali students. Sigdel’s friend, Icchya Sharma, who is pursuing a two-year graduate degree, has since finished her course. “I feel uncomfortable though. I have a Chinese degree despite having spent less than six months in China,” she says.

Suraj Bhandari, a Chinese Scholarship Council beneficiary, was in China studying software engineering. His scholarship is at risk of being revoked as it requires annual renewals. “As we don’t have the go-ahead to return from Chinese authorities, I don’t know what to do next,” Bhandari explains. Manoj Bhatta, another CSC scholarship recipient, shares that his university is eager to welcome back its students but he will still be unable to return without the go-ahead of the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu.

Echoing Bhandari, Suhana Bajracharya, a final year medical student, worries about what will become of her medical degree. She has yet to take the practical classes required for graduation and has no opportunities for internships. She heard the news that other medical universities in China have begun teaching surgery and conducting hospital visits online, but her university has announced no such programs. “University policies differ widely,” she explains. “But even if I were to attend such programs, I don’t think I would earn any credibility as a medical professional upon my graduation.”

As China finds success in controlling the virus, it is starting to open its international borders—but only for select countries. Last August, when China announced that South Korean citizens would get visas for work or education, thousands of international students rejoiced. For sure, this meant that other countries would, in due course, be allowed entry as well. But nothing of the sort happened. South Korean students are back in their universities in China and continuing their academic pursuits normally.

The rest of the international students are still waiting. Several online campaigns from South Asian, African, European countries are taking social media by storm. Under #TakeUsBackToChina, international students are pressuring their governments to advocate for their return and asking answers from the Chinese authorities.

Several open letters have been addressed to the UN, embassies of several countries, and the Chinese foreign ministry. Students have also taken to explaining their different circumstances and how without being allowed to return, their futures remain dark. Some South Korean students have entered China without being vaccinated, which has been the point of contention for many international students who were denied entry despite having received China-made vaccines.

They are struggling to understand the yardsticks the Chinese government is using to protect its citizens.  

So far their campaigns have yielded smattering responses from Chinese representatives who continue to assure that honoring the academic pursuits of international students remains their priority.

However, they are yet to give a return date. Rumors that the next academic year will be suspended are rampant, adding to the students’ restlessness. Nepali students have written an open letter to the Nepali government and the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi. But so far there has been no response.

Anantha Iyer, one of many concerned parents, writes on his social media account, “We trusted the Chinese government and took the bold step to enroll them in various universities across China. Our Children are losing out on a vital learning phase and are anxious about their futures.” Several frustrated students have sought psychological help and Sigdel says news of student suicides is daily news on her WhatsApp group.

Students say the best time for their return is between July and August while Chinese universities have summer breaks. This will allow them sufficient time to quarantine and vaccinate. “The biggest trouble here is that we don’t know what will happen come September when the universities reopen. We don’t have time to prepare ourselves. Most frustrating is the lack of communication from the Chinese government,” Sigdel says. Chinese authorities are asking for patience. But students are questioning: Just how many more months are they supposed to wait?

(Some student names have been changed at their request)