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International student issues amid COVID-19

Mengfan Ji provides insights into the lives of international students during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Photo by Benny Shen Photo by Benny Shen

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has affected every aspect of daily life. Having already reached 203 countries, the number of cases of COVID-19 continues to grow by the minute. Following the outbreak in Australia, the federal government imposed strict travel rules limiting both inbound and outbound travel in an effort to stop the spread. States across Australia have responded to the crisis by imposing lockdown measures to prevent interstate travel and gathering of people. As a result of these measures, international students studying in Australia have been especially affected.

When the initial travel ban from China was imposed right before the beginning of the new semester, many students were unable to return to Australia to continue their studies. At the beginning of the ban, it was reported that approximately 100 000 international students were stranded in China. The travel ban quickly extended to the rest of the world , effectively blocking all international students from returning to Australia.

Despite the university moving all courses online on the 23rd of March, many international students who are taking their courses remotely still face many painstaking issues. At the same time, the outbreak in Australia has posed new threats for international students who are onshore. The article will briefly outline some of the biggest challenges faced by international students as a whole in this crisis.

Day-to-day issues

In many faculties, some courses are only offered in one of the two semesters each year. If international students with a course structure requiring prerequisites decide to suspend for a semester, they will have to suspend a year due to the semester-specific nature of classes. For some of us, the purpose of studying in Australia is to one day apply for skilled immigration to work and live here. While for others, Australia might not be the destination in the long-term. Having all these plans delayed for an entire year may be very difficult in that it will incur an extra year of temporal and financial costs. This extra year of loss will not be compensated in any way and this has driven many international students to continue their online study despite not physically being in Australia.

Many international students chose to enter a private rental agreement or shared rental agreements with friends, and this gives rise to a situation where the student outside Australia having to pay an occupancy fee over the period without actual occupation. There are no financial remedies to this issue and the temporary solution to this is to negotiate with the landlord. Arthur, an international student who is currently overseas, has told us that in an attempt to sublease his room to reduce loss, he has reduced the lease price to half of the original, and yet no one is willing to take the offer.

Students who are living in colleges and have already paid for the semester are also suffering financially. Out of the concern that the outbreak will happen in Australia, many international students in Australia chose to return home. Galahad, a student currently living in one of the residential colleges, has told us that in returning home, he was not allowed a refund of the rent already paid since moving out is a “personal decision.”

A few weeks ago, the sudden increase in the number of cases has caused many people to stock up large amounts of daily necessities. This made the lives of international students in Australia particularly difficult as many of us do not own a vehicle that can ensure smooth transportation of groceries back home. Having to purchase groceries without a vehicle also increases the chance of contact, making international students particularly vulnerable.

Social wellbeing

As a result of the lockdown in multiple countries, the social wellbeing of international students may be impacted in many ways. Being far away from home and family, many international students are very socially reliant on friends and tend to share a very deep emotional connection with them. The lockdown policies can potentially affect students’ social wellbeing in that it limits this sole source of consolation for international students who are still in Australia. Gareth, an international student currently in Australia, has proposed that the physical distance has also opened up a psychological distance, which may harm interpersonal relationships.

When sharing the experience of personal life, Tristan, an international student who is particularly fond of sports, has told us that the restrictions made it impossible to attend the sports he usually played. Having no recreational activity may also cause international students to be more stressed and further affect their mental wellbeing.

Additionally, the rising tide of racism again threatens the social wellbeing and personal safety of many international students in Australia. In the past few weeks, there have been many reports of racially fuelled violence specifically targeting people of a certain ethnicity. Last week, there was also an incident where a lecturer at our university spilled racial comments about certain ethnic groups. This may potentially harm the social wellbeing of international students.

Online course delivery

Regardless of the geographic location, all students are facing the issue of online teaching. There has been a lot of contention, from both international and domestic student communities, about the quality of online teaching. From our understanding, student’s satisfaction in their courses depends very much on the course content. For students who are in science, medicine or engineering degrees, there has been great dissatisfaction with the online materials delivered. What these courses have in common is that they all have laboratory sessions where students have first-hand experiments with the equipment provided by the university. These opportunities are now deprived and instead replaced with videos of the experiment or online simulation, which significantly degrades the quality of teaching. Guinevere, an international student in veterinary science, has said that having videos online has limited the opportunity to communicate with classmates. Having English as our second language, this is particularly stressful as we may need more clarification than domestic students. This downgrade impacts international students particularly because international students pay so much more for these experiences compared to a domestic student. Many international students chose to go to a third country to return to Australia just so they can ensure that they can ensure the teaching quality is up to standard. However, by moving all courses online, many students came back to Australia for no purpose. Although the university has offered financial hardship support, most are still being processed and this made international students who have applied for the support very anxious about the result. 

International students currently in countries requiring a VPN to access university materials also complained that the VPN that the university has provided is malfunctioning, making them unable to access the material. Lancelot, a student currently in China, has provided that the VPN server is sometimes ‘unreachable’ in China. He has also said when there are a lot of users using the same page at the same time, the server gets so crowded that it takes a very long time to even access a page with VPN. This can be particularly stressful for international students overseas especially in the middle of examinations.
Speaking of the exams, there have also been ongoing debates around the use of ProctorU, which is now widely used for online examination purposes. Mordred, a science student, has expressed his concern that having a program that takes full control of your computer poses significant harm to personal information. He also raised that being monitored by software during an exam can be very stressful and can affect performance.