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Around 20,000 Indian students are enrolled in Chinese universities, with the vast majority studying medicine. Illustration: Henry Wong

India’s tired, depressed, stranded students desperate to return to their second home in China

  • Around 20,000 Indian students are enrolled in Chinese universities, with the vast majority studying medicine due to a similar curriculum
  • But they have been forced to study online due to the coronavirus, and despite assurances, they face an anxious wait to find out when they can return

Shahroz Khan was in his third year at Nantong University College of Medicine when the coronavirus pandemic first struck China and he decided to fly back to India.

Over the next two and half years, for complex, senior-level courses such as surgery, orthopaedics, and ophthalmology, online demonstrations replaced hands-on, practical learning in clinical laboratories and hospitals.

“Of course we feel this loss,” said 23-year-old Khan from Delhi. “We should have been there and we should have been able to gain this knowledge physically. That feeling will be there throughout our lives.”

Khan, though, continued to pay 1,700 yuan (US$252) per month in rent, having moved to Nantong in September 2017, hoping he would be allowed to return to China to resume his practical studies and be reunited with his belongings.

The owner had to just throw our things because we lost our hope to return
Shahroz Khan

But in March, with only three months left until the end of his fifth year and the start of his final year internship, he finally gave up the flat.

“The owner had to just throw our things because we lost our hope to return,” said Khan, who is the student coordinator for Indian Students in China and also the Foreign Medical Graduates Parents’ Association.

“Each semester we thought China might call us back, but the students have become tired and depressed.”

Around 20,000 Indian students are enrolled in Chinese universities, according to India’s Ministry of External Affairs in May. The vast majority are studying medicine because of the similarity in curriculums between the two countries and the affordability of Chinese medical universities, compared to private Indian institutions.

The rest of the world has opened its borders to international students again, and while China has allowed small batches of students from other Asian countries such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka to return, Indian students remain stranded.

Towards the end of last month, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that “the relevant departments in China and India have been in contact” to facilitate the return of Indian students to China as soon as possible.

A few days later, Ji Rong, a counsellor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a tweet that the first batch of Indian students had already been informed by their universities about return arrangements.

But according to Khan, 12,000 students requested to return to China two months ago, understanding that they would need to cover flight and quarantine expenses, however, a list containing the first batch of students has yet to be produced.

“I don’t know why China is still so strict with its policy. When business and foreign employees are allowed back, why just students? And among students, why mostly Indian students?,” said Khan.

On Tuesday, China’s Minstry of Foreign Affairs offered a further update saying that the process had begun, and that “we are confident in seeing the return of the first group of Indian students in the near future,” although they did not provide a specific timeline.

And given the sheer number of Indian students looking to resume their studies in China, the process could take up to a year, if not longer, said Rachita Kurmi, a fourth-year medical student at Shandong University in Jinan.

“If there was a first list, we would at least have a timeline and we would know on what priority basis they are allowing students to return,” said 21-year-old Kurmi from Mumbai.

“If the first batch of Indian students are able to return after the end of this year then there would be hope that by the end of 2023 all the Indian students will be able to return. But this doesn’t seem likely.”

Rachita Kurmi in her room at Shandong University. Photo: Rachita Kurmi

Both China and India require six years of study for Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery students, with the final year spent on an internship in hospitals affiliated with their university.

Foreign medical graduates are then required to take a screening test in India to be eligible to practice medicine.

China is also seen as a more affordable option for many students who, after taking India’s National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET) which is required for all students who wish to pursue undergraduate and postgraduate medicine, are unable to secure a place in competitive government medical colleges.

Fees for a private Indian medical college can be anywhere between US$25,000 and US$90,000 per year. In comparison, Khan and Kurmi pay around US$4,000 and US$6,300 per year at their universities, respectively.

We found the cost of education in China more reasonable
Bharatratna Kurmi

“We found the cost of education in China more reasonable,” said Rachita’s mother, Bharatratna Kurmi.

“We didn’t want to spend 2 to 2.5 crore (US$252,000-US$315,000) on an Indian college. We wanted her to gain international exposure and self- confidence,” said Bharatratna Kurmi, adding that, as a doctor herself, she was impressed by the educational standards and infrastructure at Shandong University.

However, the longer China’s strict zero-Covid policy remains in place, the more it seems that the allure has begun to fade.

Students passing the premedical entrance test are no longer looking towards China for enrolment, said Ridhi Gupta, a fifth-year medical student at Xi’an Jiaotong University.

Indian student Ridhi Gupta (middle) with her friends during a university trip to Nanjing in April 2019. Photo: Ridhi Gupta

And students currently studying in China are either thinking of initiating the complex process of transferring to another foreign institute or dropping out altogether, according to 22-year-old Gupta, who is from the northern Indian state of Haryana.

“If within six months no news of returning is given to us, China is going to lose a lot of foreign medical students,” said Rachita Kurmi, who is also thinking of transferring.

For students like Khan, Gupta and Rachita Kurmi who have been forced to study online, the situation has been particularly stressful as the National Medical Commission (NMC) of India does not recognise a purely online training in courses which require clinical practice.

After being directed by the Supreme Court of India to respond to the needs of foreign medical graduates, the NMC created a one-time arrangement in which students such as Khan, who graduated on or before 30th June, will be allowed to appear for a screening exam in December.

I am rethinking my life choices and trying to cope the best I can. But there is no plan
Ridhi Gupta

This would also offer Khan and other affected students the chance to undergo a two-year internship instead of the usual 12-month programme to make up for the loss of clinical training at their own universities.

Khan would then be required to return to China after completing the internship to finally receive a certificate of completion from his university.

But for Gupta, who will finish her fifth year in June, the future increasingly remains uncertain as the arrangement is only for the current batch of students.

“There has been no information about us,” added Gupta. “I have not been able to study since the NMC notification. I am rethinking my life choices and trying to cope the best I can. But there is no plan.”

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Without any clarity regarding their future, the financial burden and the career-related anxiety is also mounting for many students.

After the Indian government banned 273 Chinese apps, including those used for online learning such as WeChat, DingTalk and Tencent’s VooV Meeting, many Indian students also lost almost all communication with their universities.

Saloni Chaudhary, a 19-year-old engineering student at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, had to travel to Nepal from the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to get a new phone and sim card just so that she could continue communicating with her professors on WeChat.

“Whenever I have to update the app I have to travel there again,” said Chaudhary, who is in her second year, adding that she has crossed the border three times so far, with each trip costing US$120-US$150 for her and her father.

If I apply for a job in the future, they won’t know how hard I worked
Saloni Chaudhary

More worrisome is her university’s policy of only telling students who take exams online if they have passed or failed, and Chaudhary fears her parents might ask her to drop out if she is unable to return to China in the next year.

“If I apply for a job in the future, they won’t know how hard I worked,” said Chaudhary. “I can’t take a pass in each course for the next three years.”

Students are also becoming increasingly frustrated with having to continue to pay the same tuition fees for an education that has diminished in value due to online learning.

“You can’t show your transcript anywhere to say- yes I have attained this knowledge,” added Rachita Kurmi. “People do question you a lot on that.”

What we really want is for China to open up. We were there for so long, it was almost like a second home
Rachita Kurmi

The financial burden of transferring to another foreign medical institute is almost the same as the financial burden of resuming studies in China again, she said.

Quarantine and flight costs could be as high as 4-5 lakh rupees (US$5,000-US$6,300), while Rachita Kurmi may also be asked by her university to pay for an additional year to allow her to catch up on clinical learning.

But despite the hurdles, students such as Rachita Kurmi and Ridhi, who still have at least three years left before they complete their degrees, continue to hope that they might be able to return soon.

“What we really want is for China to open up,” added Rachita Kurmi. “We were there for so long, it was almost like a second home.”