USA: Flexibility for online studies ends for international students

Expat news
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Published on 2023-05-24 at 09:00 by Asaël Häzaq
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, public attention has shifted as life gradually returns to normal. International students, previously allowed to pursue remote studies during the health crisis, are now transitioning. The United States and other countries have recently revoked Covid-related provisions, requiring international students to attend universities physically. What are the implications of this change for international students?

Face-to-face learning resumes for international students in the US

The Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) ended Covid-related flexibility on May 11th, according to an announcement by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). As a result, the waiver that permitted international students to study remotely while enrolled in US universities has been revoked. The pandemic significantly disrupted international student mobility due to border closures, suspension of visa procedures, and uncertainties related to international travel.

The DHS had temporarily relaxed conditions to minimize disruptions in students' academic journeys. But since the national emergency ended on April 10th, 2023, the revised rule now mandates international students to physically attend classes at a US university. This rule went back into effect on May 11th.

The DHS has considered the situation of international students who have already started their studies remotely – they will be allowed to continue with distance learning for the current academic year (2022-2023), including the summer semester (which starts between late August and early September in the US). However, those planning to continue their studies after the summer will have to be physically present. This requirement also applies to new enrollments made after May 11th.

International students must adhere to the limitations on the number of hours for distance learning courses, as outlined in the visa programs for international students (F visa, M visa). In addition, schools are advised not to issue Certificates of Eligibility for Non-Immigrant Student Status (Form I-20) to international students who are not physically present in the United States and who intend to benefit from SEVP if their study program includes more distance education courses than allowed.

Is international student mobility back to normal?

Besides the United States, other countries are also ending COVID-related flexibility measures and working towards restoring normalcy. Governments and educational institutions stress the importance of student attendance to ensure the smooth functioning of the education system. Universities are implementing restrictions on online course hours to encourage international students to engage in face-to-face classes. 

In Australia, for example, the National Code for International Students mandates students to attend at least one in-person class per semester. Failure to comply with this requirement can result in international students being denied a new Certificate of Eligibility (CoE), a prerequisite for a student visa. 

In France, distance learning options like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and digital resources are available but are considered supplementary to traditional university courses. On the other hand, Canada offers entirely virtual programs, allowing international students to explore online education options in their field of study, considering the costs. Canada aims to establish itself as a leader in e-learning.

China says no to online degrees courses

In January, the Chinese government announced the non-recognition of online degrees. Since the pandemic began, many Chinese students have enrolled in distance learning courses offered by foreign universities. However, China, previously more lenient, swiftly implemented stricter regulations. As a result, Chinese students studying abroad must return to physical classrooms before the start of the academic year to validate their academic progress.

Confronted with this situation, Chinese students are urgently securing flights, while others face difficulties obtaining visas within the required timeframe. In Australia alone, over 40,000 students are affected, and education authorities acknowledge their inability to process all applications in time for the new academic year. To address student concerns, the government introduced a waiver for these students during the process. Students already pursuing distance learning and facing obstacles can also seek a waiver.

However, the rule remains in effect. In February, Canada prepared for an influx of Chinese students, with Canadian and Australian authorities supporting China's decision. According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, there was a 19% drop in the number of Chinese students with study permits, from 173,365 in 2019 to 141,085 in 2021. In early 2023, many Chinese students kept studying at Canadian universities while remaining in China. The reopening of China's borders helped restore balance and enabled Canada to return to normalcy. Overall, genuine international student mobility has been challenged by fully remote learning programs. However, Canada also experienced a positive impact on consumption and tourism in the past months.

What lies ahead for international students?

International students have been faced with significant financial challenges during the Covid pandemic. Many of them got stranded, often unable to travel to their home or host country, and faced significant obstacles regarding their studies. Universities have themselves been grappling with the ongoing crisis. Inflation and the economic downturn have depleted international students' savings and made working conditions more challenging. Although certain countries, like Australia and Canada, have implemented temporary measures to extend the number of legal working hours for international students, the efficiency of these measures varies and may have unintended consequences for higher education.

Are online studies the new avenue for virtual international mobility?

Distance learning offers a compelling alternative that opens up new possibilities for international mobility, especially for financially disadvantaged students. By reducing the financial burden of travel and living expenses, it focuses solely on tuition fees. This may explain why the Canadian government is actively expanding its distance learning programs, emphasizing the exceptional quality of Canadian education that can be accessed from home. Online courses, including Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), are growing in popularity as teaching and learning methods continue to evolve. Striving to provide reliable and high-quality education to all international students seems like a worthwhile goal. Why not strive to provide all international students a dependable and high-quality education?

The crucial role of face-to-face classes in promoting student mobility

The United States emphasizes providing international students with a high-quality education that relies on their physical presence in the classroom. Therefore, the return to face-to-face learning is a top priority. The rise of online courses raises concerns regarding student visas. Should there be a special permit for international students opting for distance learning? Is there a potential risk for student visas? Global mobility encompasses more than just attending classes at a foreign university. It involves immersing oneself in a new country, its culture, and its language, expanding personal networks, and gaining insights into the local study and work environment. These valuable experiences cannot be replicated through online learning. Advocates of this perspective argue that online education should remain an exception to the rule. By residing in their host country, international students can fully engage not only in academic coursework but also in the organizational dynamics and cultural nuances of studying and working abroad.