COVID-19 and global education crisis is shattering dreams of many young minds

Amid the economic chaos globally, sober-minded teachers, educationists, and administrators are seeing the impact of the COVID-19 on education

The world continues to reel under the coronavirus and it is only monotonous to put out statistics every day of the number of people infected and the death toll. And, in the midst of all this, almost every international economic agency has come up with a sober assessment of what is in store for 2020, 2021 and beyond. It does not require a rocket scientist or Nobel laureate to figure out that nearly every economic sector — be it manufacturing, industry or services — has been impacted. But there is one area that the international system is waking up to and beyond the economic costs: a deadly virus that has literally shattered the dreams millions of young men and women in pursuit of their passion through education, at home or abroad.

Forget for a minute the scandalous political game played out by the Trump administration in the United States by squarely blaming the World Health Organisation (WHO) for this health epidemic and in cutting off some US$ 450 million of America’s annual contribution. Neither the WHO is going to be forced out of the noble business it is in; nor other countries in the West and East going to follow Washington’s lead. In the midst of the economic chaos that is being carefully analyzed in world capitals, globally sober-minded teachers, educationists, and administrators are seeing the impact of the coronavirus on education, be it primary or higher and in the alternatives that can be probed even if some may turn out to be short-term temptations that will eventually negatively impact the cause of education per se.

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Almost everything seems to have been put on hold starting with examinations and graduation and not just in India. In the United States, for instance, elementary, middle, and high schools have been shut down until the new academic year starts in August, September or whenever; forget the high school proms, there is going to be no graduation functions. The scenario in higher education is even more gloomy as reports have surfaced that small private colleges in the United States are facing the stark reality of shutting down as there are no students forthcoming for the Fall Semester. The first semester for academic year 2020 may well start in January 2021 in several academic institutions, it is believed in many quarters, if it is going to happen at all.


The economic collapse means that small private institutions that depend on alumni and endowments are finding the pinch more or less on the same lines as in 2009 during the Global Financial Crisis when even the Ivy League institutions faced the crunch. The problem is even more acute for colleges and universities in the United States that are dependent on foreign student admission leading to a question of whether colleges can sustain themselves on an ‘empty campus.’ One assessment has been that even apart from private institutions, state-run Universities and state-supported colleges in the United States are facing troublesome and uncertain times as many of them usually have a substantial enrollment of foreign students. A brief look at the 2019 Institute of International Education’s Open Doors Report will throw light on the impact of the coronavirus on the American educational system and, by extension, the rest of the world.

Foreign student inflow into the United States has been going down in the past few years. And some of this has to do with a perception of being ‘unwelcome’ through visa regulations, tightening up of the highly skilled H1B visa and question mark over the Optional Practical Training (OPT) permits. The rhetoric of President Donald Trump has not helped matters either. But all this does not take away the fact that America is still a favorite education destination given its rich crop of institutions cutting across disciplines. According to Open Doors Report for 2018-19 academic year, for the fourth consecutive year, more than one million students studied in the United States —1.09 million to be more precise — pumping in some US$ 45 billion into the American economy, an increase of 5.5 per cent over the previous year. The number of students opting for the OPT was up by nearly 10 per cent over the previous year.

India has the second largest foreign student population in the United States after China, with the two countries posting some 52 per cent of the total. In South Asia, for instance, Bangladesh and Pakistan have showed the strongest growth in 2019 over the previous year. States like California, New York, and Texas account for one out of three international students; and Engineering remains the top field of study to be followed by Math and Computer Science. Business and Management would be in the third spot of choice. One statistics has it that there are more than two lakh Indian students studying in American institutions contributing some US$ 7.5 billion (2017-18 figures) to the American economy. Most of the students are enrolled in Science, Engineering and Medical disciplines.

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The problem facing Indian and other foreign students in the United States is that some 300 top universities and colleges have shuttered and have moved classes online as well as asking students to leave dormitory facilities. Initially, foreign students were worried that sudden closure of institutions could jeopardize their student visa status that would not allow them to fully enroll in online classes. To some relief, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVIP) has clarified that international students in light of the coronavirus situation can temporarily be involved in distance learning either within the United States or outside without affecting their visa status. In short, whether online courses are offered or not, international students must remain active in the SEVIP system.

American educational institutions are quite aware of the precarious situation they are in. On the one hand domestic and international students may not wish to enroll for the Fall semester (whenever they are due to re-open) if classes are not going to be in the regular mode and only through online. But international students, including from India, would then face a more difficult choice: if they did not wish to fork out all that money for online education staying on their respective campuses, they could not wait indefinitely for normality to return by not enrolling in classes and therefore in violation of the visa regulations.

It is indeed a Catch 22 situation: Campuses cannot function without students and full fee with add- ons; but students will not enroll and pay the full fee without being assured of a full campus life. For a domestic student, why should he/she sit in a dormitory or in a housing unit off campus and go through the online teaching when they might as well sit in the luxury of their homes and still do the same thing? The extension of this line of thinking is simple: the tuition fee cannot be the same for regular academic life and online classes. And for an international student from India who is thinking of staying on for the Optional Practical Training, then on to a H1B and to a Green Card, would a potential hiring firm take into account online classes as full academic learning?

The US$ 2 trillion-plus emergency relief package passed in March by the United States Congress has allocated some US$ 14 billion for higher education which has been termed ‘woefully inadequate’ by the American Council on Education (ACE) which has called on Congress to appropriate another US$ 47 billion in assistance that would be shared equally between students and institutions. As a report in CBS News put it: “Perhaps the greatest question for colleges is Fall enrolment. It’s a major concern for colleges that have come to rely on international students, especially those from China. At the University of Connecticut, which hosted nearly 3,000 students from China last fall, officials are bracing for international enrolment to drop by 25% to 75%, [and] a loss of up to US$70 million next year.” It has been pointed out that the ACE has projected a 15 per cent drop in Fall 2020 enrollment, including a 25 per cent drop in international students for a total revenue loss to institutions pegged at US$ 23 billion.

Indian students face the uncertainty of whether they will be able to return home after the lockdown is lifted. They also need to know if they would be able to go back to America to resume studies when the situation calms down. There is confusion on the status of hundreds of Indian students on semester abroad programs on expiry of visas or thousands who had hoped to use the chance of making good of their Optional Practical Training permit for between one to three years of work experience upon completing their degrees in the United States.

Will the Immigration and Naturalisation Service waive the 90-day waiting period, given the current uncertainty of completing programs and firms ready to hire personnel? The Government of India and the diplomatic missions overseas are trying to work things out with their American counterparts; but with more than 20 million Americans out of a job in the last six weeks — and more to follow in the days ahead — and having filed for unemployment benefits would President Trump listen to his constituency on OPTs and H1B visas or New Delhi? Already, the guns are out blazing on the need to suspend the H1B program and from expected quarters.

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Look at the other side of the problem: those thousands of young minds in India that had set their minds on going abroad and had forked out large sums of money by way of application fees, qualifying entrance examinations and perhaps had even paid an advance or full fee to secure their admissions. Every year, more than 1.25 lakh Indian students go abroad to America, Europe, and the Asia Pacific (primarily to Singapore, Australia and New Zealand); and even if those going to the United States have dropped in the last few years, substantial numbers go in that direction. Compounding the woes, the U.S. State Department has shut down all visa issuing facilities, barring emergencies. And issuing a student visa does not seem to fall in this category.

Gone are the days when Indian students went to the United States or elsewhere for only graduate studies (Masters and beyond). Globalization, relaxations by the Government of India on foreign exchange and financial institutions willing to generously lend money for education have resulted in good numbers of young minds from India bank on their academic fortunes overseas even for under graduate programs. Why many of our young minds look abroad to chase their passions in the hope of fulfilling their dreams is a story for another day. Today, the coronavirus seems to have shattered many a dream but the conviction of the Indian youth is such that this could only be a temporary phenomenon; perhaps even a wake-up call for something better!

(The writer was a former senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations)