In January 2020, Subashini* (name changed), a medical student, flew to Kerala’s Kozhikode to visit her parents for her winter holiday break. Little did she know that she wouldn’t be returning to her dorm at Ningbo University in China’s Zhejiang region for the next two years.
Education of thousands of Indian medical students studying in Chinese universities was put on hold abruptly amid the COVID-19 outbreak when China shut down and subsequently imposed strict visa restrictions.
Two years on, students are still in the dark about when they can return and are growing increasingly desperate about their future.
With no response from the Chinese government so far, the Indian students have written to the Ministry of Health and External Affairs as well as to the Indian and Chinese governments to facilitate their return to campuses.
Amid all this, a new notice by National Medical Commission has warned prospective students planning to study in China that they will not recognise online learning in medical schools.
Kerala has the most number of Indian medical students studying in Chinese universities, including the three from Wuhan who were India's first COVID positive cases.
The Quint reached out to a number of these students who chose not to be named as they were concerned about their future.
Online Medical Studies Cannot Be Recognised: National Medical Commission
In January 2020, colleges across China closed just after the coronavirus outbreak. India’s first confirmed COVID-19 case, on 30 January 2020, was a medical student from Kerala who returned from Wuhan.
Subashini told The Quint that their visas have been cancelled and the students have been attending classes virtually. The issue however is that while the theory classes can be taught virtually, clinical subjects remain untaught.
The National Medical Commission (NMC), India's apex medical education regulatory body, has stated that the online studies of these students cannot be recognised and that they would not be allowed to attend the eligibility test needed to practice in India.
Subashini has completed with her fourth year and has suspended her education for a year now as she feels helpless. Medical education can be completed only after five years of classes along with practical lessons and one year of internship.
“We haven’t been able to do any practical classes because we are studying online. I stopped taking classes in September because what is the point of it, if these online classes are deemed invalid?” she said.
The universities in China said they would restructure the curriculum to make up for the absence of practical learning when they return. But students who are graduating in the next two years are running out of time.
“Our university has told us that they will arrange for our practical classes when we return. But we don't have any clarity about when this will happen. Since China is not calling us back, we want to be able to transfer to another college, say in Russia. Or we want the Indian government to speak to NMC and arrange for practical classes here in India.”Radha, a third year medical student hailing from Thiruvananthapuram
There are over 23,000 students from India who are enrolled in medical universities in China which are recognised by the Indian Medical Commission. Of this, nearly 10,000 students are from Kerala.
According to data from Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), in 2018 and 2019, China received around 5,00,000 international students each, the third highest in the world after the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK).
Students Demand Clarity on Return Dates, Facilitation of Visa Application
The students have sent open letters to the Indian government stating that the looming uncertainty over their return to campus has led to mental strain. They have requested the governments to prioritise the return of the students who need to complete their hospital shifts and clinical rotations in order to graduate.
“Studying online for more than a year has been stressful and now with our future being so uncertain, we feel anxious all the time,” said a 20-year-old student studying at Wuhan's Jianghan University.
The students have demanded clarity on return dates, proposal for possible chartered flights for sending them, facilitation of visa application and recognition of vaccination certificates. The Chinese government has not yet confirmed which vaccine should be taken by the Indian students.
“China had earlier even said they will arrange for quarantine when we return. We have all been vaccinated. China is probably wondering how to accommodate this influx as there are at least 25,000 Indian students. That is why we need the Indian government to step in and help us out. This is crucial because we need doctors during the pandemic but we are being told our education is invalid,”24-year-old Mohan* from Southeast University in Nanjing
Moreover, there is a clause in China that medical graduation must be completed within eight years. If the online course is not recognised in India, then the students will have to pay fees and attend regular classes all over again in China. It is further contended that they are not even allowed to get a transfer from their present Medical University in China to any other Medical University abroad.
150 Indian Students Move Delhi High Court against Travel Restrictions
About 150 Indian medical students enrolled in China have moved the Delhi High Court, seeking permission to pursue their physical training in India.
"In the present extra-ordinary circumstances, the Petitioners herein are neither being allowed to attain physical training/internships/clerkships in India by the NMC nor any clarifications being provided by the authorities regarding the approval to the online theory classes attended by them from from their medical University situated in China," the plea read.
The petition was heard on 10 February and notices were issued to the Centre as well as the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare directing them to file their responses by 21 March.
India’s Medical Regulator Cautions against Enrolling in Chinese Universities
In an official notice dated 8 February, the NMC said that the External Affairs Ministry noticed that some universities in People’s Republic of China had started issuing notices for MBBS admission for the current and coming academic years.
The students were advised to refer to FMGE Regulations before applying or planning to seek admission in any institutions in China/foreign institutions.
While China has repeatedly assured various nations that it would arrange for the return of international students, no timeline has been provided to any nation.
"We are considering in a coordinated manner arrangements for allowing foreign students to return to China for their studies. We stand ready to work actively toward the healthy, safe and orderly cross-border flow of people on the basis of sound anti-epidemic protocols," said Zhao Lijian, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson during a press briefing.
Students continue their wait in despair as China refuses to open its doors to the world.