Melbourne University students stranded in China by outbreak seek semester slowdown

Concerns about the toll the coronavirus travel ban will take on their studies have prompted 160 stranded Chinese students to petition the University of Melbourne to push back the start of semester one classes.


Chinese students stranded at home by the coronavirus outbreak are appealing to the University of Melbourne to follow the lead of Monash University and delay the scheduled return to first semester classes next month.

A group of 160 students have put their names to emails they are circulating to university staff outlining their concerns about the academic and financial fallout of the Federal Government’s travel ban suspending the entry of foreign nationals from mainland China to Australia until February 15.

Student Mengting Chen in her room in Wuhan: “Me and my roommate have already booked an apartment … We have to pay the bond and the rent for the first month, and now we can’t get back to Melbourne on time.”

Mengting Chen, a journalism student presently locked down in the epicentre of the outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei Province, is one of the students calling for the postponement. She spoke to The Citizen via WeChat after growing increasingly concerned about the implications of the delay on both her budget and her graduation date.

“I’m really anxious,” she said. “Many Hubei students and Chinese students are just talking about this situation and worrying about this situation all the time.”

Without the delay, the email says that some students might be forced to defer study for a semester, which would leave many unable to graduate for another year because some compulsory subjects are only offered in semester one.

Chen was unsure if she should pay her tuition fees for the coming year, which fall due on February 14 – one day before the current travel ban ends. She said it was unclear if the usual late payment fee would be waived if she delayed payment.

If she does pay on time, she risks paying for classes she can’t attend. Chen said she was also concerned that she would have to start paying for an apartment in Melbourne which she would not be able to use.

“Me and my roommate have already booked an apartment for our next semester. We have to pay the bond, and the rent for the first month, and now we can’t get back to Melbourne on time.”

Vincent Ke, another Chinese student who is stuck in Fujian, approximately 800km from Wuhan, said it’s been difficult to get information and clarity about the situation.

“They’ve written letters to every student … but there’s nothing useful in those letters. They can’t do anything helpful in such a short time,” he said

“I can understand that, but I hope they can give us more information and advice in the next few days.”

Like Chen, Ke was concerned about whether his initial study plans and timelines would need to change.

“It seems like this will not end soon, and I’m not sure how soon I will be allowed to enter the country.”

When he does return, his next concern is whether he’ll be affected by xenophobic sentiment.

“You really worry about the racist things, and how people act when they see you. They see you wearing a face mask and think they might get a virus.”

University of Melbourne international student Mengting Chen during a recent trip to Sydney.

Min Wu, a University of Melbourne student currently in Henan province, said she was worried that public perceptions around the outbreak could affect the part time job which she relies on to support her studies. She works two or three shifts a week as a cleaner in a CBD store but has not heard from her employer and was worried that in her absence her shifts could be given to someone else.

The latest numbers from the Chinese government indicate there are more than 20,000 cases of coronavirus in mainland China, with 425 people confirmed dead and more than 10 cities in lockdown.

University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell indicated on Monday that the university would not delay summer exams set for February 17, orientation activities commencing February 24, or the scheduled start of semester one on March 2.

In contrast, Monash University has already announced it will delay the start of on-campus teaching from March 2 to March 16, with online classes set to commence on March 9.

In an attempt to determine how many students are likely to be impacted by the travel ban, the university has issued a survey to all students who hold Chinese citizenship. Its 2018 annual report indicates that 42% of its more than 52,000 students are international, with China accounting for more than any other nation. According to a 2019 report in the Australian Financial Review, 16% of the University of Melbourne’s income comes from Chinese students.

The group of 160 students have written to university staff requesting that the university push back the start of the new semester by 14 days, and to also follow Monash’s lead by making materials available online to undercut the loss of teaching time.

Those changes would allow more time for students to arrive in Australia and observe a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine period before classes resume, they argued.

Due to the heavy influx of inquiries from confused students, the university has asked that all communications around the situation be forwarded to student services. It has indicated on that site that it would consider special consideration for students impacted by the outbreak.

Matt Kunkel, director of Victoria’s Migrant Workers Centre, said the travel ban was implemented without the consideration of its wider implications for temporary visa holders, including international students.

“Migrant workers are often already treated as second-class citizens, who are often in insecure work and have limited work rights and protections,” he said. “We are concerned the travel ban will have an ongoing impact on migrant workers’ jobs and livelihoods.”

Material from this story is co-published with The Age.