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The impact of coronavirus (COVID-19) on studying abroad

Information updated 23 July 2020

The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has caused unprecedented disruption to life all over the world. Universities have had to make big changes to how they operate with many closing early and changing how they teach.

It is currently a very uncertain time for those looking to study abroad, but universities are still keen to welcome international students. Places are still available all over the world, and universities are working hard to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. Here’s what we know so far.

Can you still study abroad?

The outlook for those hoping to study abroad in 2020 is still unclear. Whether or not you’ll be able to study abroad will depend on the restrictions in the country you want to study in, and your home country.

Every university will have its own procedures in place, so if you know where you want to study it’s best to check these. Most universities will still be actively seeking international students to enroll and will put alternative arrangements in place if you can’t travel when term starts.

Many universities have been able to continue teaching by offering lectures and tutorials online for the rest of the 2019/20 academic year. Some universities, including the University of Cambridge in the UK, have confirmed that they will continue to offer online teaching for mass lectures in 2020/21, but small group teaching will take place face to face as much as possible.

How will your application be affected?

The COVID-19 outbreak resulted in school closures across many countries, which led to the cancellation of final year exams. This has meant students have been delayed in getting their results, which in turn can impact university applications.

Any face-to-face interviews or entry tests with universities will have been canceled to reduce the spread of the virus, but where possible these will be carried out online.

Another knock-on effect could be lower university staffing numbers which could hold up the processing of applications. This could mean changes to deadlines or entry requirements.

What if you’re already enrolled to start this year?

If you have secured a place at your dream university, and are due to start term later this year, you need to know how the coronavirus pandemic could affect your studies.

It’s important to understand that each country has responded differently to the crisis, and are at different stages of recovery. Some countries are now returning to some sort of normality, whereas others still have strict restrictions in place.

Your new university should be in touch to explain any changes to the start of term as soon as they know what’s happening. Some differences you might face include:

  • Online learning for the start of term or beyond
  • Limited university-sponsored travel
  • Restricted attendance to lectures and tutorials
  • Change of term start date
  • Removal of mid-term break
  • Cancellation of sport and other university events

You should be able to find more information by visiting your university’s website. Remember that the situation is constantly changing, so keep in touch with your university for the latest updates.

Can you defer your place for a year?

In light of the uncertainty around studying abroad in 2020, delaying or deferring your studies can seem like a sensible option.

If you have a place due to start in the Fall, contact your university as soon as possible to see if you’re able to delay starting your studies. The decision of whether or not you can defer will be entirely up to your university, and some have said they will only consider these requests when the international situation is clearer.

What are the restrictions in different countries?

UK

The UK has been one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, and all universities have had to adapt quickly.

Lockdown restrictions are being slowly lifted, but it is still unclear whether or not universities will be in a position to offer face-to-face teaching by the start of term in September.

If your university has confirmed they will be only offering distance learning from the start of term, your Tier 4 student visa will remain valid. The UK government has more guidance for visa applicants, sponsors and short-term students.

Many travelers entering the UK are currently required to provide their journey and contact details, and not leave the place they’re staying for the first 14 days of their visit. Make sure you allow for this before you leave home as you may need to leave earlier and arrange extra accommodation.

There are several countries exempt from the self-isolation rules. If you are traveling from one of these countries, and have not visited anywhere outside the list in the previous 14 days, you won't need to self-isolate when you arrive in the UK.

US

The US has also been one of the worst affected countries by the coronavirus pandemic, and currently has the highest number of deaths from the virus.

Lockdown restrictions in America vary by state, and some states have begun lifting restrictions, while others still have strict rules in place.

Here’s a breakdown of the restrictions currently in place in each state. Check the state your university is in to see what restrictions are currently in place, and how these could affect your plans.

The US government had announced that study visas for students whose courses were to be taught fully online could be revoked. This would have resulted in potentially thousands of international students facing deportation, but the ruling has now been rescinded following pressure from leading universities.

Australia

Australia has experienced fewer coronavirus cases and deaths than many other countries, thanks in part to strict rules and restrictions that are only now being slowly lifted.

Australia has a strict travel ban in place that restricts who can enter the country. Those that can travel are required to self-isolate for 14 days after their arrival in Australia.

International students may be one of the first groups allowed to enter Australia from abroad, starting in July, under stage 3 of the country’s exit plan, but the quarantine period will still apply.

The Australia government has now also resumed processing international student visas, in a bid to boost the number of international students when borders reopen. This comes with other visa changes aimed at helping students from overseas study in Australia.

Canada

Canada currently has strict travel restrictions which means only certain people are able to enter the country. However, if you are an international student with a valid study permit, or were approved for a permit before 18 March 2020, you are exempt from the travel restrictions.

When you arrive in Canada your health will be checked at the airport. You’ll need to quarantine for 14 days when you enter the country, regardless of whether you are displaying symptoms or not. You should only travel if you have a plan in place for your 14 day quarantine period.

Will you be able to get a student visa?

A student visa is essential if you’re planning to study abroad next academic year. However, getting your visa has been made more difficult as application centers and embassies have been closed all over the world.

Many centers are now beginning to open as lockdown restrictions around the globe begin to ease. Check with the embassy of your country of study to find out how to get your visa. Many countries have changed the process by extending deadlines, or by relaxing some of the requirements to make getting your visa easier during the pandemic.

Will tuition fees remain the same?

As the services that universities can offer change, with fewer contact hours likely and a reduction in sports and events, it has been argued that tuition should be reduced to reflect this.

Most universities have decided not to change the fees they charge international and domestic students, but an increasing number are making changes.

Will your scholarship or funding be affected?

If you have a scholarship or funding arranged, you should check with your university to see if this will be affected. Most institutions will honor any scholarships, even if your learning is moved to online at the start of term. If you want to defer your place for a year, this could mean you will need to reapply for any grants, scholarships or funding you have in place.

Many universities have made extra aid and funding available to support students for things like food and accommodation. That means there may be extra help available if you need it, however, this support is usually for existing students who have been adversely affected by the pandemic.

Speak to your university if you are struggling to pay your tuition due to the pandemic. The closure of banks can make it difficult to send large sums of money, so many universities have offered payment plans or delayed their payment deadlines to help.

Will student accommodation still be available?

This will depend on the restrictions in place in your country of study, and the approach of your university. If you requested university accommodation, contact your institution as soon as possible to make sure this will still be available when you plan to arrive.

Remember that many countries have imposed quarantine restrictions, so check what support you will receive during this period. As well as accommodation, ask about things like food, induction, orientation, and how you’ll meet tutors and other students.

If you are renting privately, contact the landlord or property manager to make sure you can access accommodation early if necessary.

Can you still take English language tests?

In order to study abroad, most universities require you to prove your level of English proficiency. To do this you need to take a test and achieve a certain score that is set by your university.

Two of the most popular tests are the Test Of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). However, most test centers have been closed, making taking a test impossible.

Check with your university to see if there are any alternative ways to prove your English ability if you’re unable to take a test. Some will accept other tests, for example, the University of Birmingham have said for 2020 they will allow:

  • TOEFL “at home” test
  • Duolingo English test
  • Password English
  • Chinese College English Test (CET-6)
  • IELTS indicator

Should you study abroad following COVID-19?

This decision is up to you, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t study abroad once the pandemic is over. One study has shown that, although more than 40% of international students now plan to postpone their studies, only 5% may cancel their study abroad plans altogether.

It may be too late for you to study abroad in 2020 if you’ve not yet applied. However, assuming restrictions around the world have been lifted by 2021, the process of studying abroad should return to normal.

How the pandemic will affect international study long term remains to be seen. It could lead to increased demand in 2021 as those who delayed their studies apply for the following year. On the other hand, students may still be wary of traveling following COVID-19 and international student numbers will remain low.

If you want to study abroad in the wake of COVID-19, try not to be put off and speak to the universities you’d like to apply to. They can tell you if or how you can enroll, and if there are any restrictions you need to be aware of.