Will international students be allowed back this autumn?

Nic Mitchell

While many universities in the Western world fret about how many international students will turn up on campus for the start of the new academic year, at least one Norwegian university has ‘revoked admission’ to its masters degree programmes taught in English for non-European Union students as a result of COVID-19.

Oslo Metropolitan University, known as OsloMet, said it made the decision because of uncertainty over visa and travel restrictions for many students from around the world and the rapidly changing picture for infection control in different countries.

Norwegian universities will be among the first in Europe to reopen after the summer vacation, with OsloMet starting its new academic year on 11 August.

Ingvild Straume, the university’s head of external relations, told University World News: “Our management had to make this decision quite early because of the amount of planning needed when it comes to student enrolment and administration and to clarify what was happening to international applicants. It is similar to what we understand other Norwegian universities are doing.”

Student exchanges cancelled

The university had already cancelled its international summer school that was due to have taken place from 6-31 July, and has also announced that all incoming and outgoing student exchanges for the autumn semester 2020 are being cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Regrettably, none of our students will have the opportunity to go on exchange abroad this autumn and we will not be able to receive any incoming exchange students,” said Straume, who added: “The health and safety of our students will always be our top priority.”

At the University of Oslo nearby, their website said it has also cancelled all inbound and outbound exchanges for the autumn semester 2020, but for now at least, it is offering the first semester of its international masters degree online, with students expected to arrive in Oslo from January 2021 for the second semester of their studies.

Supporting first years is a priority

Over the Scandinavian border in Sweden, there is no common strategy towards handling international students from outside the European Union.

A spokeswoman at Linköping University told University World News the priority was to support first year students, including those from abroad.

“Providing it can be done safely and with no crowds, we will give first-year students access to university facilities. But many international students are having trouble with residence permits to allow them to enter Sweden because of lockdowns in other countries and embassies being closed or partially closed,” Eva Lena Rodriguez, Linköping University’s senior coordinator for international marketing and student recruitment, told University World News.

Many ‘no shows’ expected

“In Pakistan, for instance, admitted students are being offered interview time slots long after the start of the semester in Sweden,” she said. “So, while we welcome all students, both degree and exchanges and EU and non-EU, for reasons outside our control, we expect many no shows, especially among non-EU students.”

“It was decided quite early on that we would not allow any outgoing exchange students this autumn in order to help students find alternative courses or workplace training,” she added.

Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg says incoming exchange students can still be admitted provided that their home university allows it and that there are no travel restrictions to Sweden from their home countries.

As for incoming masters students, the autumn semester will still start on 31 August as planned, but both year one and two students will be able to be taught online if travel restrictions “make it difficult or impossible [for them] to travel to Gothenburg”, says their website.

Infection control training

Back at OsloMet, Straume told University World News they would be making online basic training in infection control compulsory for all students and staff before entering the campus.

To make up for the shortfall in international students, universities would be allowed to recruit more local students, she said.

A range of communication activities was planned to help students feel safe about the campus fully reopening, including 800 current ‘student buddies’ helping to ensure a smooth, if slightly different, start to the new academic year.

The university has also provided small grants to international students who have been hit financially by losing their part-time jobs because of the coronavirus lockdowns.

UK universities fear loss of fee income

In the United Kingdom, where many high-profile universities are reliant on international student fees to help fund their research, there is little sign of any deterrent for any international students willing and able to enrol this autumn.

But the University of Manchester is one of a growing number to announce that large lectures will be delivered online in the first semester.

It is also among a growing number of British higher education institutions to be offering voluntary severance to trim costs, together with a halt to all capital spending that is not in contract or externally funded, according to its vice-chancellor, Professor Nancy Rothwell, in a message to staff on its website.

Rothwell’s message said Manchester fears the “likely loss” of around half its international students as bookings for residence are “well below expectations” despite acceptances from international students currently being above last year’s.

Manchester is offering students who cannot reach the UK in time for the start of the new academic year in September the opportunity to study “wholly online” for the first semester.

Safety measures outside the classroom

During a webinar hosted by Times Higher Education and Salesforce.org on 23 July, Trevor Payne, director of estates at the University of Birmingham in the UK, said they were looking at a number of safety measures outside the classrooms.

While universities can do a lot to make people feel confident during teaching, like lecturers wearing face visors in classes, they also need to consider simple things like staggering the start and finishing times to avoid all the students discharging into corridors and moving from one building to another at the same time, he said.

Payne told the webinar that the University of Birmingham never closed during the pandemic and “had 1,000 students on campus in accommodation throughout the crisis”.

Birmingham is working on plans to persuade people that it is safe to return to the campus, with a string of intelligent building measures, including temperature controls and density checks. “And where necessary, we will even have people on the doors with clipboards to avoid overcrowding,” he said.

One bright spot, said Payne, was that Birmingham’s new campus in Dubai was still on track, with some construction continuing during the crisis.

Also speaking at the webinar was John Jibilian, director of higher education at Deloitte in the United States. He described the situation facing campuses reopening in the US as “chaotic” with “everyone doing their own thing” and some universities changing plans to return to face-to-face teaching and opting for online teaching instead as a result of local outbreaks of COVID-19.

He said good communications would prove vital in monitoring and controlling the situation as universities respond to the new normality and suggested mass texting rather than expecting everyone to read emails in emergencies.

Jibilian said some US universities were even looking at starting the new academic year a little earlier and finishing the first semester around Thanksgiving Day celebrations on 26 November and before the height of the flu season.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He also provides English-language communication support for European universities and specialist higher education media.