Two years and counting: Indian MBBS students anxiously await return to China

Indian students pursuing MBBS in China haven’t been able to return ever since they came home two years ago because visas for international students continue to remain banned.
A man dressed in a white gown and a China flag in the background
A man dressed in a white gown and a China flag in the background
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Indian students who are pursuing their MBBS course from Chinese universities are anxious as they haven’t been able to return to China ever since they came home in the first half of 2020. In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, China banned visas for international students. The ban continues even as several countries have been pushing China to allow students to return to resume in-person studies. It is estimated that more than 23,000 Indian students, of which medical students form the majority, studying in various universities in China are stranded in India even as their classes progress online.

When most students came to India between January and March 2020 for their vacation, little did they expect that the pandemic would delay their return to their universities for so long. It has now been two years and counting. The students fear that the politically strained relations between India and China is delaying the dialogue between the two countries. They are taking to social media, organising campaigns and writing emails to the Ministry of External Affairs urging it to take up the issue with China so that they can return to their universities.

Thousands of students in India choose China to study medicine because it is more affordable than India and also easier to get an admission. Better research opportunities is another reason students prefer China for medical education. These students need to clear the Foreign Medical Graduates Examination to practise in India, which is now proposed to be replaced by the National Exit Test (NEXT).

Students in quandary

Priyanka* hails from Mumbai and is pursuing her bachelor’s in medicine from Shandong University in China. She had come to India on January 12, 2020 for her vacation. She couldn’t return after the havoc wreaked by the pandemic. Fast forward to February 2022 and she is still waiting to go back to her university. Like Priyanka, Mahi*, a final year student from Anhui University, Sasha* and Navdeep*, third year students from Harbin Medical University, and Sachin*, a fourth year student from Hubei University are among the 23,000 students waiting to return to China so that they can resume physical classes.

“Online classes have been happening and our exams were also held online. We objected to practical exams being conducted online. That has been cancelled and will be held once we return. We’re eager to go back because we want to physically attend classes. We had signed up for in-person classes. If the entire world can go back to physical classes, why are we being denied the right to head back and resume physical classes?” questioned Priyanka.

Apart from the delay in dialogue between India and China, students are also anxious about the lack of practical experience if classes are continued to be held online.

“For several months now, we’ve been trying to get this issue to the notice of the government and the officials from the concerned ministry. Our universities have told us that the countries need to come to an understanding and only then can we be allowed to return. If China can host the Winter Olympics, then why can’t something be done about international students on priority? Our demand from the Indian government is to have a dialogue about this issue and find a solution,” said Sasha.

‘Mental health of students affected’

Parents of the stranded students are concerned for their children, especially their mental health. Speaking to TNM, Mohammad Sajeer, Joint Secretary, Foreign Medical Graduates Parents Association (FMGPA) said, “My son is also a medical student. He and other students are constantly asked by everyone around them about why they aren’t returning to their university. This creates a complex within them. They are already worried about their future and this is also affecting their mental health.” According to Sajeer, some of the students refuse to leave home, attend family get-togethers and are in a state of depression because of the fear of losing out on their career.

FMGPA, an association registered in Kerala, has parents of medical students from across the country. The association, which has more than 2,000 members, has sent a letter to the Prime Minister and desperately reached out to several MLAs and MPs. The issue was also taken up in Parliament by two MPs. “We need to understand that there are several other issues that have resulted from this crisis. Some banks are not releasing the loan money citing that the classes are held online. But the universities have asked for fees to be paid in full. This is adding to the parents’ stress,” Sajeer added.

According to FMGPA, there was a rumour about the National Medical Commission (NMC) – a regulatory body for medical education in the country – not recognising MBBS degrees for students who attended online classes. This had caused severe tension and worry among the student community. However, an RTI reply revealed that all online classes during the pandemic would be recognised.

Meanwhile, even while the anxiety persists, the NMC has cautioned students against seeking admissions in Chinese universities amid the visa ban. An order issued by the body says that as per the existing rules, NMC does not recognise or approve medical courses done only by online mode.

Immediate need for political dialogue

Prof Ravindra Babu Kanduri teaches at the Hunan University of Technology in China and is also the President of the Indian Association of China (IAC), an association of Indians in China that has more than 10,000 members. Prof Kanduri believes that political dialogue between India and China needs to start immediately.

“Due to border issues, India and China have a strained relationship. India believes there should be no public diplomacy until the border issue is resolved. However, thousands of businessmen and students are stranded in India unable to return to China due to the pandemic. Public diplomacy and political dialogue should start immediately as diplomatic dialogue is the need of the hour.”

Prof Kanduri, who is in touch with the Indian embassy in China as well as with Chinese think tanks and officials, said that the IAC can facilitate talks between the two countries. “China is ready for dialogue. India needs to agree for dialogue to find a solution to this deadlock,” he added.

Most students have already completed two years out of their five-year course online and are desperate to head back to China for physical classes. In some universities, while Chinese students are attending physical classes, international students are attending online classes.

“Students from Singapore, Pakistan, Mongolia, etc have clarity about the arrangements underway to return to China. But we Indian students are in the dark about what if anything is being done to end this deadlock. We want both countries to work together and come up with a policy for the sake of the students,” said a student from Shandong University.

*- Names changed on request

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