Hopes among scholars and students that Asian borders would reopen in early 2021 have been dashed, as new travel restrictions were announced over the holidays.
While the changes were sparked by a new Covid variant, they also go beyond limiting only UK and South African entrants and could keep international students off campuses for many more months.
Japan, which already had prohibitive border controls, barred non-resident foreigners from entering on 28 December and stopped all visa applications until at least the end of January, although some students already enrolled at universities will be exempt.
Hong Kong, which had been open to foreign students since the beginning of the pandemic, clamped down on 25 December. Entrants from outside greater China now must pay for three weeks in a government-approved hotel, for which the cheapest option is HK $8,400 (£800), not including food.
Mainland China’s borders have been closed to foreign students since March and will likely stay that way.
There are more than 1 million international or non-local students enrolled at universities in these three regions, plus many foreign teaching staff.
Benedict Rowlett, an assistant professor of English at Hong Kong Baptist University, will end up enduring five weeks of quarantine across two countries before he can get back to work.
He travelled in December to Japan, where he is a permanent resident, and completed a 14-day quarantine there. His plan was to return to Hong Kong, where his job and husband are, before the beginning of the new semester on 11 January.
On Christmas Day, he read that Hong Kong changed rules with immediate effect, requiring him to spend 21 days in a single hotel room, even with a negative test.
“I braced myself for these upcoming long days of isolation. I am now on day eight and not looking forward to the remaining weeks,” Dr Rowlett said.
Meanwhile, some students face another semester of logging on remotely from outside jurisdictions.
“I feel that many [students] are disappointed that they can’t enjoy the benefits of an on-campus learning experience. In addition, all those students who wanted to pursue exchange programmes last year and next year will continue to be affected,” Dr Rowlett, said. “I cannot wait to get back to campus and to meet my students, many for the first time, so I hope the restrictions end sooner rather than later.”
Ka Ho Mok, vice-president of Lingnan University Hong Kong, said that some non-local students who had completed online learning in the first semester were trying to return physically to campus, despite long and costly quarantines.
The university has kept students up to date on the hotel situation and was also offering financial support.
Professor Mok, who has released several recent studies on student migration during Covid, told Times Higher Education that he predicted regional border reopenings “would take a while, as the infection cases in Japan are increasing”.
Even the border between Hong Kong and mainland China would likely not open until “Hong Kong has zero local infection, with additional health prevention measures taken”, he said.
The city of Beijing announced a state of emergency on 26 December, in a signal that mainland China may not open its doors until after its winter break during the Lunar New Year in February. That means that some international students may face an entire year locked out of their classrooms, labs and clinics.
Kin-on Kwok, an infectious disease expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s public health school, explained why some Asian states were more conservative with border openings.
“For countries with low levels of local infection, like China, the risks are high,” he said. “If the virus is reintroduced into the community, then you have to restart your efforts from scratch.”
He said that a potential option to closed borders would be a combination of longer quarantines – possibly 21 or 28 days – and multiple tests before and during quarantine, with monitoring afterwards.