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Int'l Students from the EU Share Their Plight of Studying Online

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On weeknights before 3am, as many students make their way home from bars and nightclubs, Patrick crawls out of bed in his rural Irish hometown, fires up his computer and knuckles down for long medical lectures delivered live from a Chinese university more than 8,000km (5,000 miles) away.


He has maintained this routine through two years of study at Shanxi Medical University - an institution he has never set foot in, but to which he is paying full tuition fees of around €3,400 (US$3,560) a year.

Like other students in Europe enrolled at Chinese universities, Patrick - who, like the others interviewed, did not want to use his real name in case it jeopardised his future visa status - has found himself frozen out of the country.

Since the pandemic began, students from EU countries have been unable to obtain visas to take up their studies at Chinese universities in person due to tight controls on who can enter the country.

Now, though, they are watching enviously as counterparts from nations including Russia, Pakistan, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka and Solomon Islands - return to the country for in-person classes, following reported discussions between their governments and Beijing.

Even students from countries with strained ties with China, like South Korea - and some elite American Schwarzmann scholars - have been able to return. For European students, however, there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel, and the situation is taking a toll on the students' mental health.


Patrick, for one, said he had been feeling "definitely anxiety and a lot of stress".

"Our whole future is on the line here. If China doesn't call us back for another year or two, I will probably end up having to drop out because I'm paying the full tuition fees for my university and I'm not using any of the equipment, I'm not even entering the building ... the country," Patrick said.

"So I will probably have to drop out and my whole dreams will be shattered."

In an attempt to raise awareness of their situation, dozens of students from around Europe have combined their efforts, launching social media channels and coordinating messaging campaigns to European governments.

Magali Briane, a French psychiatrist, recently conducted a mental health assessment of 35 European students unable to enter China.

She found signs of anxiety and/or depression in 21 of them, as well as "sleep disorders related to the jet lag" associated with attending classes in the middle of the night.

"These European students have found themselves in great psychological suffering for some time. This ongoing situation generates a strong emotional charge, with important psychological repercussions," she said.

The time difference "generates a shift in their biological rhythms", Briane added, while the students also suffer from an inability to "create or maintain the links that are essential with their community".

"Some of them also report feeling isolated and abandoned by their university," she added.

Each of the six European students enrolled at Chinese institutions interviewed for this article said they had been suffering from stress or anxiety.

All the students had asked their universities for help, only to be told they had no say over the country's Covid policy. They also contacted their local Chinese embassy, only to be referred back to the universities.

Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs said it was "aware of the difficulties faced by some students" but declined to say whether it had raised the subject with its Chinese counterparts.

"We note that the issue of visas are at the discretion of the host country, in this case China. We would encourage all students to engage with the embassy of China for updates," a spokesman said.

Governments from the European countries of other students interviewed by the Post declined to comment.

European diplomats in Beijing, meanwhile, said they had raised the students' situation with Chinese officials up to the level of Foreign Minister Wang Yi, but to little avail.

"These actions will waste a whole generation of sinologists," said one diplomat, who added they had raised the students' plight with Chinese authorities on several occasions, only to be told that "the lives of Chinese people should be safeguarded".

A second diplomat said China was "losing its best ambassadors - not just people who know China, but who come here and fall in love with the country". The envoy said that ultimately, the appeals had fallen on deaf ears, leaving the feeling that "dynamic zero-Covid is here to stay".

Neither diplomat was prepared to be named as they were not authorised to speak to the media.

As the deadline for paying fees for another year of potential online learning approaches, European students are feeling increasingly desperate.

The students interviewed said they were paying fees ranging from €3,000 to €4,000 per year to study in China for those enrolled exclusively at Chinese universities. The fees are much higher for those doing joint master's degrees with European colleges.

While this pales in comparison to the costs of studying in Europe - which often run to more than €10,000 per year, the students begrudge paying full fees while being unable to access their campuses.

Cecille, a second-year French medical student enrolled at Anhui Medical University in the eastern Chinese city of Hefei, said that practical laboratory work had been conducted online - for example cardiac resuscitation techniques have been taught via video link.

Cecille said she had not been given access to textbooks or even PDF versions, despite paying for them. Nor, she said, could she access a scholarship granted by local authorities to study at the university until she entered the country.

Anhui university staff said they were following the Covid-19 guidelines from the Chinese ministries of education and foreign affairs, neither of which responded to requests for comment.

Iris, another medical student from Greece, is about to embark on a third year at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, but said being limited to online courses only meant missing out on practical work vital to becoming a medical practitioner.

"Our professors specifically told us: 'We don't think you guys are getting the proper education - We would love to have you here, but it's not up to us." the student said.

Zhejiang University officials said their online courses for international students were "carried out smoothly" but that they had no control over border policy.

The students' frustrations are not only with Chinese universities.

One Spanish graduate student said she felt abandoned by the London School of Economics (LSE),which accepted her for a joint two-year master's degree in international affairs, with the first year supposed to be at Peking University in Beijing.

She is being asked to pay €14,000 for a year's study in Beijing, with no guarantee of entering the country at any point.

"I think LSE is trying to pass the responsibility to Beijing. But Beijing doesn't really respond, because I feel like they don't really want to get involved in all of this drama," she said, adding that she is considering dropping out of the course altogether.

She said that LSE refused to allow her to defer her application, nor was it possible to study the first year in London and the second in Beijing.

A spokeswoman for LSE said she "deeply sympathised with the situation", but the course's structure required the first year to be taken in China. She added that LSE administrators "are currently in discussion about offering a deferral option for the coming intake".

The students' apparent abandonment is sharpened by the fact that the cases of Western business executives frozen out of China have been elevated to the very top of the diplomatic tree.

While EU leaders raised the corporate disruptions during a summit with Chinese authorities in April, the plight of students was not mentioned.

For now, the students are left to rely on an end to China's zero-Covid strategy, or a dramatic improvement in EU-China relations - neither of which appears on the horizon.

Reference: SCMP

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