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Chinese lure for Indian students falls under the Coronavirus shadow

Topics Coronavirus

A file picture of Indians, airlifted from Wuhan, undergoing tests at a quarantine facility in New Delhi. Photo: PTI
New Year celebrations were gathering steam in China’s capital city Beijing on a lazy January 1 afternoon. Shanky Chandra, a Dehradun lad pursuing his research in Chinese science fiction at the Beijing Normal University, was going about his day till he received an alarming text from his Taiwanese friend: “Atypical pneumonia swarms occur in Wuhan, Hubei Province...The news has caused public concern that the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has revived.”

Surely, it was a rumour, Chandra thought. He tried to verify the information from some of the professors who, as it turned out, had also heard the rumours and were concerned. There was no clarity. “Looking back it seemed like Russia’s first reaction to Chernobyl...The actual situation was being hidden,” Chandra said. 

On a gut feeling, the 31-year-old student pursuing PhD in contemporary Chinese literature, booked his flight back to India for January 8. It was some coincidence that he did not take the usual bullet train that crosses Wuhan, which Chandra describes as the Mughal Sarai of China. “It is a big hub and the bullet train stops there for over five minutes.” 

While leaving, Chandra tried to convince his friends to come with him since he felt something was fishy, but he ended up returning alone. 

“When I left everything was normal. There were no checks at the airport, no one was wearing masks.”

Over a month since he left, there is nothing he can do for his friends who are grappling with a shortage of masks, hand sanitisers, food and even mineral water. 

What has made China such an attractive destination for India’s student community? 

According to estimates, there are more than 20,000 Indian students in China and most of them are there to study medicine. 

China has a number of medical institutes spread across the country, where entry comes at an affordable fees and without any entrance exam. To top it, the course curriculum is much easier compared to India and is all in English. “These are like business shops. While they have been around for over a decade, in the last five-six years there has been big growth in these donation colleges,” said Hemant Adlakha, associate professor, Centre for Chinese and South East Asian Studies. 

Wuhan alone has more than a dozen of these medical colleges. Government has evacuated more than 600 Indian students since January from Wuhan and Hubei. It is also the city where students of Chinese literature have to spend one year to become proficient in the language before pursuing any further studies in China. 

Those who have stayed back have been kept in isolation centres by Universities. 

The other big draw for students is the Chinese language studies, especially for those seeking government-to-government jobs. Due to the massive shortage of Chinese language experts for interpretation and translation, the course has a big demand in sectors such as defence, diplomacy and trade. 

“There were 20-30 scholarships for Indians to go to China for studies till around October last year... in the last six months it has come down to one. I think it is for political reasons,” Adlakha added. 

Experts said that earlier it was the Russian colleges that offered admission at a fee without an entrance exam to foreign students. Language was still a barrier. China has filled the gap that Russia left. “Getting foreign students is an important part of getting a good profile for any university,” the JNU professor said. 

Although as far as medical degrees go, India does not allow students holding MBBS for Chinese donation institutes to practise medicine here. They must clear the Indian medical test before pursuing a career in medicine here, according to the rules of the University Grants Commission. 

According to experts, usually it is the students from Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh who come to China to pursue medicine. Many take loans to finance their education, a senior academic said. “The richest go to Europe...the ones coming to China are a rung below and usually pay Rs 20-25 lakh as tuition fee... Many students even support themselves through part-time jobs. This (coronavirus crisis) is a big loss for them,” the academic said. 

The next academic session in China will start in August-September. The outbreak has also cast a shadow on the prospects of other neighbouring Asian universities, which are anticipating a decline in foreign student enrollment if the situation persists. 

“We are not sure about how this situation will pan out...So far we do not see any influence because the application period ended on January 22 but we are monitoring the situation for the remaining two application windows starting in February and April,” said Takeo Kobayashi, general manager-international student recruitment, Tokyo International University. 

Meanwhile back in China, classes have moved on WeChat and other mobile apps. Most universities are using some online platforms to conduct live-streaming courses such as DingTalk and Yuke Classes. All the students have to do is enter a code and their roll number to access the online classroom. 

Back home, it is wait-and-watch for Chandra for another few months at least. His new semester is about to begin next week and Although he left his books, notes and scholarship money back in China when he took off for New Delhi, he cannot return just yet. 

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