Delayed Response to COVID-19 Leaves Unimelb Exchange Students Stranded

31 August 2020

University of Melbourne exchange students found their plans thrown into jeopardy as Australia first enforced bans towards interstate and overseas travellers. When Victoria first went into lockdown in March, many students—local and international—struggled to receive sound advice on how the rest of their semester would unfold.

The response from the University of Melbourne to coronavirus travel restrictions was described by students as “delayed and vague”, leaving them unsure about whether to continue studying overseas or not.

The University’s Associate Director, Careers, Employability & Global Learning Davina Potts said, “Students were supported to make the best decision based on their individual circumstances. The best decision wasn’t always return to Australia—some chose to remain, go to a nearby location where they had support, or return to their home country.”

 Second year Bachelor of Arts student Cassie Starc recalled that the University’s instructions were “not clear at all”, never specifying whether she should actually return to Australia or stay in her host country. When the University finally issued an email on 13 March regarding a possible return to Melbourne, Australia had already terminated most international flights; acquiring flights back to Australia became difficult and costly.  

 Mark Yin, whose exchange at the University of California Irvine was cut short by COVID-19, also had mixed feelings about the University’s response. After having contacted Stop 1 twice for assistance, he was told to “follow advice from local authorities”, without conclusive information on whether he should physically stay in the USA. When applying for plane ticket compensation through the University’s COVID-19 support fund, he also experienced delays, eventually only receiving $75 out of a $275 grant.

Foreign students completing their exchanges in Melbourne also felt disappointed by the University, having to rely on their home institutions instead. Bachelor of Arts exchange student Charlotte Bloch noted that the University seemed disinterested in helping foreign exchange students, as they only reached out to ask whether they were planning on staying in Melbourne or not. Charlotte described their response as “enquiring of what we were doing without really doing anything [to help]”, such as providing travel advice or course information.

 Paulina Garcia, an exchange student from Mexico, further acknowledged that many of her peers were feeling let down by online classes. 

 She noted that the University “wasn’t being as flexible as they should” with assessments and Zoom tutorials, as no compensation had been made for altered time zones. This has been a major problem for foreign students as some tutorials still had an attendance hurdle; one of Charlotte’s classes was now 1-2am, and it had been impossible for her to change. 

 With Victoria in lockdown again, the University’s exchange program has been suspended as of 30 April. Students planning Semester 2 exchanges now have the option to defer until 2021, provided they are still able to meet the subject requirements of their degree. However, exchange programs also remain at the discretion of host universities abroad, and with travel bans expected to continue well into 2021, the future of exchange remains unclear.

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