Virus cancels exams and jeopardises Chinese students’ plans

Michael Melia

HARTFORD, CONN (AP) – Universities that rely on international enrolment are expected to take a big hit in the next academic year as cancelled entrance exams and travel restrictions in China because of the coronavirus make it impossible for students to enroll and attend college.

Over 660,000 Chinese students study abroad annually – close to half of them at schools in the United States (US), where they represent the largest group of foreign students by far – and many universities have come to rely on their tuition dollars.

To avoid losing students, universities have begun planning to enroll admitted students initially through online programmes, accepting alternatives to traditional standardised tests, and considering virtual orientations for students and their families in China.

At New York’s University at Buffalo, Joseph Hindrawan, an associate vice provost, said the virus represents the biggest crisis he has experienced in 25 years in international enrolment management.

“This has been carrying on for months already and we don’t see the end of the tunnel,” he said. “Everything is unpredictable.”

High school junior Zhang Qingqing studies at home in Chongqing, a megacity in southwest China. PHOTO: AP

As the virus began to spread through China, organidations cancelled SAT exams and tests for English language proficiency that foreign students must take to enrol in American universities. Then the government began imposing travel restrictions that keep students from meeting with recruitment agents, securing paperwork and applying for visas.

Tan Weiwei, a 17-year-old student in Changsha, the capital of the southern province of Hunan, spent her winter break studying for the SAT, facing a wall plastered with motivational slogans. When the March exam she was registered for in Malaysia was cancelled, she said she felt lost and anxious about what it could mean for her dream of studying in the US.

Tan, who was wanted to study abroad since first travelling to the US at age 13, is now planning to take the SAT in August or October.

“I have made another plan,” Tan said. “What I am faced with is fewer opportunities and greater pressure.”

SAT exams were cancelled in March in China and for students travelling from China to other countries to take the SAT, according to Jaslee Carayol, a spokeswoman for the College Board, the company that administers the test.

The next exam is scheduled for May. A limited number of tests are offered in China, which is among countries where SAT tests have been cancelled in the past because of concerns about possible cheating.

Test centres also have been closed for the ACT exam in China, Hong Kong and Thailand, said Ed Colby, an ACT spokesman.

The Educational Testing Service has suspended the TOEFL English proficiency test and GRE exams through the end of March in China, where it normally has more than 375 test centres open, spokeswoman Ally Norton said. Testing also has been suspended countrywide in Iran, with local delays in other countries including Italy and South Korea.

In a survey of over 230 US higher education institutions that was released on Thursday by the Institute of International Education, 37 per cent reported some students were unable to come to their US campus from China because of virus-related travel restrictions. More than three-quarters of the schools said outreach and recruiting events in China had been affected by the outbreak.

At the University of Connecticut, officials are developing a programme that allows admitted students from China to take instruction online for the fall semester and then join the campus in person in the spring.

The university also is looking into providing housing over the summer for incoming students from China who are already attending US secondary schools and enrolled students who cannot return home.

“We have close to 10 per cent of our entering class coming from mainland China. If you’re thinking about 10 per cent of the class may not actually be able to come for reasons that are beyond our control, that’s concerning,” said Nathan Fuerst, a UConn vice president for enrolment planning. “We’re concerned for students’ safety and well being, and we’re concerned for the institution and everything they bring to the institution.”