How Governments Can Open Up Their Countries to International Students During the Coronavirus Pandemic

How can a government open up their country to newly matriculated international students during the COVID-19 pandemic?

By S N McGannon

July 5, 2020

Previous articles have discussed many difficulties international students currently face during the COVID-19 pandemic. Issues surrounding transit and border openings have been discussed in great length. These issues — indeed having immense impact on international students — are not unique to international students. However, there is an issue that is unique to international students (specifically, to newly matriculated international students), and that is the issue I am concerned with today. It is the issue of widespread government suspension of residence permits for studies.

Most governments around the world have suspended their usual issuance of residence permits for studies.

But what is a “residence permit for studies”?

In brief, it’s the visa most governments require a student to get in order to legally study in the country in question.

Why have they stopped issuing them?

Because, in general, a government will only issue visas to prospective students who prove their identity in person at one of their embassies or consulates (and typically the embassy or consulate closest to the prospective student’s residence at the time of application) and — as you know — many in-person services are mandated to be closed due to COVID-19. So a government “opening up” for international students really means that they begin issuing residence permits for studies.

So, what is being done to address this? What can be done to address this?

I’ve seen very little substantive discussion of this problem, and I haven’t seen any suggestions or proposals offering solutions (even tentative ones). It is my fervent hope that many such suggestions and proposals are being discussed in private. However, I nevertheless want to contribute to a broader public awareness and discussion surrounding this issue by presenting just such a proposal.

Please note that I am neither a public health expert nor an expert on immigration issues — just the usual anthropology philosophy double major. With that explicit, here is my proposal.

How a government can begin issuing residence permits for studies to newly matriculated international students during the COVID-19 pandemic

If a government requires that certain international students prove their identity at an embassy or consulate prior to their visa approval, then they should immediately amend that requirement and include an alternative route to doing so in cases where it is not possible for students to visit the relevant embassy or consulate. The alternative should be an alternative — rather than a replacement — so as to allow for the usual route to be taken in cases where possible (such as cases where the usual route is resumed between some countries but not others). Thus, the alternative route should say that if an applicant cannot prove their identity via the usual route due to issues caused by COVID-19, then they may instead follow a process similar to the one outlined below. 

These steps are to be completed in order:

  1. The applicant must prove that they have sufficient funds to (A) purchase a plane ticket outside the visa zone to which they would be traveling; and, (B) cover the costs of quarantine accommodations upon arrival for 14 days — in addition to any other funds they are already required to have to obtain a visa. This could be proven with, for example, a bank statement. This would ensure that, should the applicant be required to leave the country for any reason, they could do so without cost to the government of the country in question.
  2. The applicant must identify themselves by video conference. Of course, there should be certain guidelines for the conference — such as a strong internet connection, good lighting, the applicant being alone for the call, the applicant being able to display the original documents required, etc.

At this point the applicant should be granted permission to enter the country provided they are willing and able to meet the remaining steps (listed below).

  1. The applicant must prove upon arrival they have tested negative for COVID-19 within the previous 72 hours and submit to a temperature screening. This will reasonably ensure the student is unlikely to have COVID-19. If accurate, rapid COVID-19 tests are developed, this requirement could be replaced or supplemented with a requirement that the application must submit to a rapid test upon arrival.

At this point the applicant should be issued a temporary residence permit to be replaced with the full residence permit pending completion of steps 4 and 5.

  1. The applicant must undertake a mandatory 14-day quarantine (e.g. even with prior proof of a negative test) at the end of which they must re-test negative for COVID-19. This precaution should be taken in the case the applicant contracted COVID-19 while traveling.
  2. The applicant must confirm their identity in-person at a domestic immigration point within a given timeframe. The timeframe should be decided given the circumstances in the country in question.

Once the immigration authorities have confirmed the applicant’s identity in-person, the applicant should be issued with the full residence permit on the basis of studies.

This proposal outlines what I take to be the strictest measures reasonable for how a government can begin issuing residence permits for studies to newly matriculated students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments ought to ease all such related restrictions as quickly as the situation permits.

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