International students might be shown the door, requirements unlikely to be weakened
Naela Delmo from the Philippines has been admitted to a chemistry Master´s programme at the University of Tartu and should start her studies this September. She is excited and really looking forward to the school year but the corona virus has turned her plans upside down. "I don´t even know when I can apply for a visa which is hugely stressful for me, since I´m coming all the way from the other side of the world," she explains.
The situation is made even more difficult for her, since the nearest place she could apply for a study visa is in the Estonian embassy in Japan, but due to the virus travelling between Japan and Philippines is also more complicated. However, distance from Estonia is not the only determinant. Darja Venikova from Saint Petersburg also plans to start her studies in international relations at the University of Tartu this autumn. She does not know either when she can get her documents in order. "I hope that the situation dies down by the end of the summer," she expresses hope.
So far, Estonia´s message to such students has been that it is quite likely that borders can be closed to them in autumn, appealing to public health and safety. Uliana Buldakova, a student about to graduate from the same curriculum as Darja, is from the heart of Russia, Udmurtia. "I understand that in conditions of COVID-19, precautionary measures should be taken in regards to international mobility, but I think that closing the borders off for all non-EU nationals is a bit radical, especially if they are from countries that are less-infected, for example Georgia," Buldakova condemned the decision.
Buldakova who is about to bag a political sciences degree feels that closing Estonia off to everyone, no exceptions, can be very convenient but understanding of the nature of the disease might be skewed. "Today it is hard to do the right thing which only means that more effort should be made to return to normalcy," she said.
Ruth Annus, head of citizenship and migration policy department at the ministry of internal affairs, the person who notified the higher education institutions a few weeks ago, saying that international students might not be able to enter this year, does not agree with the criticism.
"The ministry is not against learning mobility but we have to take into account that we might face a new wave of the virus in autumn and thus, restrictions might be re-established," she explains. "Learning mobility is not an inescapable cause for travelling that would justify making exceptions." Both students and their representatives have been inquiring about why closing the borders is necessary if, for example, the September arrivals could simply be tested or told to stay in quarantine. Annus finds such measures unreliable, since no one has time to check the validity of the certificates from other countries and if students were tested at the airport, positive test results could mean that carriers have already entered the country.
Still a no to families and work
During the time when the borders have been closed, the coronavirus has been an additional argument in Riigikogu to move forward with the bill aiming to amend the Aliens Act which the student body was opposed to earlier this year. Eariler the ministry planned restricting mobility saying that the main cause of additional restrictions is a question of security, but now due to COVID-19, it’s also national health. The Ministry of Internal Affairs´ plan to restrict students´ opportunity to come to Estonia with their families or work during studies is closely watched by Assad Hussain in Dubai who has yearned to start studying E-Governance Technologies and Services at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) in autumn.
He has a wife and two little children at home. Hussain´s wife plans to apply for a Master´s programme at the University of Tartu next year in order to continue her studies in biotechnology.
"I have been working in e-governance for years now and so haven´t applied anywhere else - I really want to come to Tallinn," Hussain explained.
Today he lives and works in Dubai but is from Pakistan, a country with a high immigration risk. Pakistan together with Iran, India, Bangladesh and Nigeria are the countries which - according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs – half of Estonia´s international students originate from and whose immigration is now being sought to be restricted. The Pakistani tries not to worry too much about the situation, since several months remain until September. However, the Ministry´s proposal to restrict family migration would send his plan to re-locate down the drain. Leaving his 5-month-old child is not really an option for Hussain which is why he hopes to arrive in Tallinn before the legislative process concludes in Riigikogu. Ruth Annus, on the other hand, hopes that the bill is passed in autumn, since there is little time left in the summer. The question is whether borders are opened before, so that students like Hussain can reach Estonia.
Opposition has not died down
Annus precisely outlines the purposes of the bill. "If we wanted the foreigner to stay in the country, we would let them bring their family," she explained. Only those students can stay in Estonia whose employers pay them more than the average salary. This supposedly serves as means for the international graduate to prove that they are willing to integrate and have studied a subject that is valued in the society.
By now, the University of Tartu Student Union has been trying to find out for months, what the Ministry of Internal Affairs´ assessments are based on and from where the claim that international students pose a security risk originates (now, additionally, why they are considered a public health risk). Their requests for information have been denied, saying that data about the classification of foreign nationals has limited access and is only available to those who actually need it, for example, members of the Riigikogu.
"Till this day, the documents have not been issued and we must conclude that rational argumentation is overshadowed by political will," Helo Liis Soodla, Vice Chairman of the Student Body summarised the process. It appears that this kind of rhetoric has been amplified by the state of emergency - regardless of epidemiological assessments, the enemy of public health has been found in non-EU students."
This is not merely a question of funding
Both Uliana who is about to graduate from the University of Tartu and the Student Union agree that restricting international students´ right to enter Estonia puts the universities in a tricky situation financially (e.g. the University of Tartu made 3.5 million euros off tuition fees last year), but also hinders creating an international network of professionals and thus strips universities of the chance to remain competitive on a global scale.
"Closing Estonian borders to Russian students who want to study here means that they cannot learn more about Estonia," Uliana explains. "If Russian students could come to Estonia, cooperation between the two states could also be furthered."
Universities have yet to give in
As for the universities and reduced numbers of students due to the corona virus, Tallinn University has been hit the most severely. Sulev Oll, representative of the university claimed that precise statistics on international students are not gathered, however, in previous years, significantly more students have confirmed their wish to study in Estonia by early June. Hesitation is caused by uncertainty about the borders closing.
Tallinn University of Technology has not yet faced great losses. "Today, 540 international students have confirmed their wish to be admitted, including both EU and non-EU candidates," Marilin Kivisto and Riina Potter from the Office of Academic Affairs of TalTech confirmed. Same time last year, 630 students had submitted confirmations. However, last September, 504 international students started their studies, so it is still early to draw any conclusions. "There have been withdrawals due to the corona situation - it´s hard to say, how many though, since few people give explanations," Kivisto and Potter added. "We expect the number to be around 10. Very many candidates say their reason for giving up their study space is financial which can also be a result of corona."
The University of Tartu is the most popular among non-EU citizens. According to Ülle Tensing, the head of Study Abroad Centre of the university says that as of today, 617 non-EU students have confirmed that they will start their studies in Estonia. "This number matches that of the previous year," Tensing explains. "Causes of withdrawals are diverse, just as in the previous years. We don´t gather further statistics about withdrawals at this stage. Potential withdrawals related to the epidemy, especially due to travelling bans, have yet to stand out."
All universities have made clear their willingness to offer international students online courses until October to an extent, also hoping that everyone will have found their way to Estonia by then.