Across China, primary and secondary schools are announcing dates for the long-awaited re-opening of classroom doors. But university students have been told to stay home until further notice.
That’s because, unlike K-12 schools, the reopening of college campuses will result in large-scale human movements across cities, counties and provinces—something that officials are keen to avoid as they hope to control the spread of the novel coronavirus.
For now, college students must continue their studies remotely—something that they are growing wary of. From inconveniences caused by technical glitches in online classes, to the logistical challenges of defending their theses and looking for jobs, these problems have found the Class of 2020 eagerly waiting to return to their campuses.
One concern at the moment is how the pandemic could delay graduation plans, especially for students at institutions that have not changed rules around credit requirements.
A law major at the Macau University of Science and Technology, Jiang Dong said most of her courses have been live-streamed via Zoom. Still, she will lose three credits this semester if the university remains closed. “I’m still missing one credit for physical education class, and two for my science and technology requirements,” Jiang said. “We haven’t been informed how to make them up, and I’m worried that it will cause a delay of my graduation,” she said.
Sharing in that anxiety are graduate students, whose degree is dependent on conducting research for their dissertations. They say it’s difficult enough to complete a thesis with only virtual support—but outright impossible if it requires field research in places that they can no longer travel to.
Chen Yu, a postgraduate student in urban planning at an university in Chongqing, in southwest China, estimates that she was about one-third of the way complete with research for her dissertation, before the winter vacation and the coronavirus outbreak disrupted her plans. “I was planning to visit more villages during the semester break, but now I need to make some adjustments.”
Two weeks ago, Chen completed a preliminary defense of her thesis online. Her advisor said her research could be postponed, but no later than May. She says that means her graduation could be delayed at least half a year—to around December—if she cannot finish it in time. “I’ve heard previously that the thesis could be sent for review in August, and students can get the degree one month later. But so far we have not heard that that is possible for this year,” said Chen.
At the beginning of March, the Chinese Ministry of Education issued a notice stating that schools and institutions could prolong the period given to students impacted by the epidemic to finish their research, and extend the frequency of meetings with the dissertation examining committee as much as necessary.
That has given some relief to students like Rong, a postgraduate student at a university in Guangzhou who is also studying urban planning. “My progress on my paper is about one month behind, but our university has added two more chances for the thesis defense examination. If there isn’t a significant mistake in my work, my graduation should be delayed by no longer than three months.”
But hopes for an end to travel bans and a return to normalcy have been tempered. In China, a spike in new infections have given rise to concerns over a “second wave” of coronavirus outbreak. Several provinces have reinstituted or even tightened lockdown measures.
In Guangzhou, said Rong, “nobody is allowed to go back to school. The student affairs assistant has even asked if we need her to ship us computers, which are in the dormitories. Obviously, the library and laboratories are not available as well.” That has kept her from accessing the research materials she needs.
Some universities, like Tsinghua University in Beijing, have tried to address this issue by enabling off-campus access to their library databases. But for fields in the hard sciences that require specialized equipment, materials and hands-on lab work, there is simply no digital or remote-access substitute.
That disruption is not evenly felt, though. Across the border, Xue Chen, a doctoral student in electrical engineering at the City University of Hong Kong, has been taking classes through Zoom over the past few weeks. In recent days, he has been able to access physical facilities on campus to catch up on his research. “The school library and laboratories are available. We are just asked to wear masks.”
Beyond graduation, the biggest concern wrought by the epidemic is the dim prospect for employment opportunities. For colleges in China and elsewhere, March and April is typically the prime season for students to go job hunting, often at career fairs and similar sorts of events.
In normal times, the competition is already intense. But this year, with many Chinese companies having already laid off employees in order to stay afloat, the challenge will get even more cutthroat for the estimated 8.7 million graduates expected to finish college later this year.
Chen, the student in Chongqing, said that local universities and government parties have collaborated to re-create career fairs online. While she has been able to meet prospective employers this way, she’s had no luck so far, having been rejected several times. The online process, Chen suspects, may lead recruiters and interviewers to focus more on the content of the resume, rather than the person.
Qiao, a classmate of Chen, is waiting for an official letter offer from a well-known company. She is also concerned about the fairness of the process. While “those who have stronger creative and design skills are more competitive,” she learned that “many of my classmates who are more capable than me are eliminated at the resume screening round, just because their bachelor’s degrees are not from top-tier universities.”
At most Chinese university job fairs, students who are interested in a position first take a short exam. As long as they pass, they will get a chance to speak with the employer. For students not from elite universities, this in-person interview offers a chance to show what they can do—not just where they went.
But “when everything moves online, there’s less of a chance of having those opportunities to talk and interact,” says Qiao.