Divyanshu Gupta, who had been accepted into the SKEMA school of business management in France, was supposed to begin his degree in September-October 2020, but due to the pandemic, he was unable to do so. After returning from his visa appointment in Delhi, Gupta, who lives in Bikaner, Rajasthan, became infected with COVID-19.
"I would have considered going after my recovery, but shortly after my recovery, my father was diagnosed with COVID-19, and it became impossible for me to leave the family and focus on my academics."Divyanshu Gupta
Fortunately for Gupta, SKEMA offered to defer his admission until the next semester, in January 2021.
Like Gupta, millions of Indian students who wish to study abroad were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While arranging their visa, travel, and lodging, the students had to also cope with piles of paperwork and bureaucratic difficulties.
As most nations now proceed with their new academic year, we examine the pandemic's considerable impact on international student mobility.
Indian students make up the world's second-largest student diaspora. While estimates prior to the pandemic showed a continuous increase in the number of Indian students travelling to study in European countries, the pandemic has thrown this trend off.
The First Hurdle: Getting the Visa
Since several nations that draw big numbers of Indian students, such as the United States, Australia, and Canada, maintained stringent travel limitations on Indian students until April 2021, the rate of refusal of study permits in these countries has risen dramatically.
This, combined with the timely and gradual opening of visa centres for numerous European countries in India beginning in the second half of 2020, allowed prospective students to study in those countries.
However, many European nations, including France and Germany, have reported a moderate drop in the number of visas awarded to Indian students.
Maitreya, a Ghent University Erasmus Mundus scholarship student, stated he "went through hell to secure a Belgian visa."
The Belgian embassy opened its visa centres in Delhi around August 2020. Maitreya said that despite the university declaring a hybrid model of teaching for the first semester, he had to reach Belgium as soon as possible as his scholarship fund was dependent on him reaching his destination country.
But it took Maitreya almost the entire semester to get his documents ready and to apply for a Belgian visa. Belgium is to be the most difficult country to get a Schengen visa from, with a high rejection rate of 16.9%. While some of Maitreya’s classmates were attending classes in person, he had to attend online classes while managing to get his documents in order for the visa.
“I had to manage attending classes online while running to Dehradun to get my Police Clearance Certificate, then to Nainital for documents’ apostille and then to Delhi to get my medical fitness certificate made, before even thinking of getting an appointment in the Belgium embassy."
“The problem wasn’t the number of documents that were needed for the application but the fact that I had to do all this when India hadn’t uplifted the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions completely. Trains and buses from my hometown in Uttarakhand were still not functioning properly, the government offices were working at half capacity for half days, people were not willing to let me stay in their homes during this period and hotel bookings were also difficult. Even after getting the visa, it took me some time to find a flight because airlines were running once or twice per week," Maitreya added.
For some students, the inability to travel meant saving money on loans while pursuing the course of their interest.
Disha Patwardhan, a self-funded student in the Erasmus Mundus programme at the Brandenburg University of Technology who recently reached her destination country Germany, said, “Even though the tuition is next to nothing at German universities, I had considered taking a student loan for my stay and food when I was accepted for my study programme without a scholarship. But since all courses were online for the first year of Master's, I stayed in India and didn't have to worry about it.”
Visa Approved, Yet More Hurdles
The difficulties these students faced did not end with the approval of their visas. When the students arrived, they were confronted with a new set of challenges, including obtaining housing and part-time work.
Manav Khanna, who arrived in Italy right before the pandemic to pursue a PhD at Sant'Anna University in Pisa, said his residency permit was delayed for several months.
Tenzin Khentse, an Erasmus Mundus scholarship student who was already in Europe when the pandemic hit, said he needed to move to Hungary for the third semester but couldn't since the country's borders had been closed.
And for many, finding a place to stay was a major challenge.
Gangadhar Shankar Jyayi, an engineering student, was required to go from Italy to Poland for a semester, but the university refused to provide him with housing. He went to dorms, the international students' office, and even sought to rent a house, but all to no avail. Finally, an Indian man in the city offered him accommodation.
Students were also impacted by last-minute modifications in the course schedule.
Abhishek, a second-year Master's student at the Université de Lille in France, said he booked his flight tickets according to the class timetable, but a few professors started classes a week early.
Abhishek missed a week of classes, which the institution did not record for those who were absent. When he arrived, he was given an assignment that he couldn't do. As a result, he failed the classes, putting his PhD chances in jeopardy.
Online Classes Did Not Help
Online education, which became the last resort for many, proved to be unproductive. The majority of students attributed their inability to recall knowledge from online classes to eye tiredness and a lack of concentration.
Pratap Singh Rathore, who began his master's degree at the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce in Clermont-Ferrand, France, claimed that staying in a room and paying attention to screens was intellectually tough and exhausting for him.
As a self-funding student, Jyayi regrets "being stuck" as a student in Poland during the pandemic because it turned into a fight for survival rather than a learning experience.
"The online classes felt more like a formality by the authorities, where actual learning was zero and professors stopped paying attention to the content quality, class preparation, and student assignments," Jyayi remarked.
Many students who migrate to Europe on a self-funded basis make ends meet by working part-time jobs such as driving taxis, working in restaurants and hotels, and delivering food for online orders. Because these industries were the hardest hit by the pandemic, it took a toll on overseas students' budgets.
“The online mode of learning became even more ineffective because my mind was always occupied with the anxiety of finding a job to continue my studies abroad...Had I known that something like this would happen, I would have preferred to continue with my studies in India."Gangadhar Shankar Jyayi
Online classes also meant no practical field and lab work. Maitreya, who is studying Soil Science and Climate Change, was disappointed.
“Instead of being on the field collecting soil samples and experimenting in labs, practicals were being demonstrated to us by teachers online, which is of course not the same thing as doing them by ourselves,” said Maitreya.
Radhika Srinivasan, a sociology student at the University of Wroclaw in Poland said that the practical field experience and exposure was the primary reason for her choosing this course.
And hence she was disheartened when her summer school in Greece, where they were supposed to carry out research with migrants and refugee camps, was cancelled.
Universities & Destination Countries Made Some Effort
While the hurdles were many, some universities and destination governments made an effort to help the international students.
Arzoo Kohra, a master’s student at Wageningen University and Research in The Netherlands had to come back to India in April 2020 and lauds her university for managing online education well.
While it was difficult because of the new mode of education and time difference, the university made commendable efforts in maintaining the excellent quality of education, she said.
In some countries, universities were actively trying to provide aid to their students.
Most of the students who studied in French universities said that they got free meals and groceries, warm clothes for winters, and greater allowances to refund room rents.
Anita Kumar, a student at the Università di Bologna in Italy said,
“I was grateful to the university for not taking rent from me when I left for India in a hurry leaving all my stuff back in Italy during the first wave in Europe.”
Another self-funding student, Shubham Chowdhury who was doing MSc at University College Cork in Ireland at the time, appreciates the efforts made by the Irish government as well as his university to provide financial aid to the students in various forms.
“The university collaborated with some local Indian grocery stores and NGOs to provide food vouchers to students,” said Chowdhury.
In addition, the university provided a grant opportunity of 300 euros for financially weak students and the Irish government provided grants for students who lost their part-time jobs.
Despite the struggles and trauma of pursuing international education during the pandemic, many students are applying for study programmes in Europe with a renewed vigour.
While things haven’t completely gone back to the pre-COVID situation, countries are trying to deal with the new normal with their own guidelines, especially those related to vaccine shots.
Rohini Mitra, a PhD student at the University of Bonn in Germany, applied in 2019 but was waiting for funding. “For me, the degree was very important and was always part of my life plan. So, the COVID situation would have had to be dealt with regardless,” said Mitra who started her course in September 2021. Before going to Germany, Mitra had to get an RT-PCR test despite being vaccinated with Covishield, a vaccine recognised by Germany.
Despite the problems faced by international students during the COVID-19 pandemic, Europe remains a viable alternative for anyone seeking to benefit from an international learning experience.
This is evidenced by the European Commission's recent report ranking India #1 in the number of Erasmus Mundus scholarships awarded. The scholarship was awarded to 153 Indian applicants out of a total of 756. Indian students got the most scholarships for the second year in a row.
(Richa Sharma is an intern at India Migration Now (IMN), a research and advocacy organisation based out of Mumbai. This piece is produced as part of her internship at IMN. She is also currently an Erasmus Mundus scholarship student in the field of transnational migrations and holds an MPhil in French translation and interpretation from Jawaharlal Nehru University. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)