Weekly HE news roundup #1: Freshers' week sparks COVID outbreaks and fury as students forced to isolate

Nicole Wootton-Cane
Nicole Wootton-Cane

2 October 2020 • 4 min read

The start of the new academic year is upon us, and students have dominated the news in the UK this week. Thousands are stuck in student accommodation across the country as halls of residence become the sites of COVID-19 outbreaks, prompting critics to ask why students were asked to return to university to simply study from their flats. 

At least 52 universities in the UK have currently reported positive coronavirus cases - a number that is only likely to rise as freshers’ week gets underway at more and more institutions.

Elsewhere, international students face more problems in the USA, as the Trump administration proposes severe visa restrictions that would see international students unable to stay in the country for longer than four years. 

This isn’t the first time that Trump has tried to place limitations on international students - earlier this year his government attempted to ban international students from entering or staying in the USA unless their classes were held in person. The policy was overturned, but left a bitter taste in many international students’ mouths - a feeling that is reflected in the falling number of international students choosing to study in the USA. 

Here’s your roundup of the main higher education news around the world this week.

UK

Universities in the UK have been told to consider giving students tuition refunds if teaching is significantly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Independent regulator the Office for Students (OfS) has advised universities against having a blanket policy of no refunds as thousands of students have been forced to isolate, and the future of face-to-face teaching in question. 

Universities are also considering plans to end face-to-face teaching early in order to allow students to travel home for Christmas. The discussions follow health secretary Matt Hancock’s comments last week that he could not rule out making students stay at university over Christmas. 

And UK universities aren’t out of the woods yet - despite UCAS reporting that a record number of international students had enrolled on courses in the UK, new data from a yet to be released British Council survey suggests that over 50% of Chinese students are considering delaying or cancelling their plans to study in the UK due to COVID-19. That’s bad news for a country where nine of its major higher education institutions rely on Chinese students for over a fifth of their annual income. 

Ireland 

The main picture isn’t too different at Irish universities, although they haven’t seen outbreaks as widespread as universities in the UK. Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has asked all universities to move teaching fully online for the next two weeks in order to curb the spread of coronavirus. Ireland has seen rising cases in major urban centres such as Dublin, Cork, and Galway. The Irish Universities Association say universities will “favour remote delivery” where it is possible for the upcoming few weeks. 

Irish English Language schools have also been told that they must resume face-to-face teaching before 12 October in order to meet the needs of students already residing in the country. 

USA

President Trump’s administration is moving to impose a general four-year limit on international student visas.

The new rules, which could come into force from as early as next spring, are aimed at “preventing foreign adversaries from exploiting the country’s education environment”.

If passed, they would also see tighter restrictions in areas such as students changing majors, low grades, and retaking courses.

However, critics have questioned the logic behind restricting students, who bring $40 billion in direct spending to the USA each year, from staying in the country for the full duration of their courses. 

US higher education is also facing more long-term problems from COVID-19, as academics from overseas are rejecting jobs at US universities due to the country’s poor handling of the pandemic. 

One scholar told the Times Higher Education that “moving to the USA felt like buying a house that is currently on fire,” begging the question of how the country can continue to attract top academics under an increasingly unappealing atmosphere for foreign nationals. 

Canada 

A new report has named the Canadian universities most at risk of financial trouble if international student numbers decline.

McGill, Concordia, Windsor, and Mount St. Vincent are all mentioned as institutions that are highlighted as most at risk in the study. The report says that a combination of weak finances and a dependence on income from international student fees puts these universities in a particularly precarious position. 

The report reflects a wider trend around the world of big name universities seeing their positions threatened by a drop in international student numbers.

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Nicole Wootton-Cane
Written By
Nicole Wootton-Cane

Nicole lives in Manchester and is a Content Writer and Editor at Edvoy and journalist.


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