“This is a Threat”: UNSW Exchange Students Left Stranded in the Wake of COVID-19

By Tina Wu

UNSW students currently on overseas exchange have received a directive to return to Australia immediately or risk losing UNSW insurance coverage and voiding their course credits.

On 19 March, outbound exchange students received an email from the UNSW Exchange Office stating that UNSW will no longer be able to support their medical expenses overseas in the wake of the Federal government’s travel ban on all countries.

Instead, students have been asked to complete their exchange program in Australia if their host universities are providing online learning options. If not, no exchange credits will be transferred back to their academic transcripts, including any completed exchange courses.

“If your host institution is not providing any online options that you can complete in Australia, we will unenroll you from your exchange codes so you are not charged UNSW tuition fees,” the email stated. “You should make arrangements to return to Australia as soon as possible.”

However, a number of current exchange students believe that it would be more reasonable for them to remain in their host countries due to compelling personal circumstances. As a result, these students would receive no university support for medical coverage and course credit transfer.

Lucy* has already completed a semester of her year-long exchange in Spain and is one of several students who would prefer to remain in her host country rather than return to Australia.

Lucy said that she was “really surprised” at the email and its instructions to return home after her many attempts to contact the UNSW Exchange Office since February received no response.

“To me, this is a threat,” she said.

“My case is different because I…have dual citizenship so I can stay here as long as I want,” she said. “I don’t have any medical insurance restrictions because I have the European medical insurance, so I am covered for everything.”

As both of her parents reside in Europe, Lucy argued that it would not make sense for her to return to Australia. “If they need me, I can’t go back.”

Moreover, the Spanish government has declared a state of emergency and movement within the country is becoming more restricted by the day.

“We’ve had the army, the police force on the street,” Lucy continued. “We only are allowed to go out if we have a valid justification.

“To pack everything, to try and go to the airport, to risk getting a fine, I don’t feel safe doing that.”

Lucy would also be facing the issue of rent if she returned to Australia. “When I left Australia, I closed my lease contract, so I don’t have a home in which to stay,” she said.

The option of completing her exchange units online in Australia is also impractical considering the differences in time zones. “How can I do that when Spain is 10 hours behind? I mean, I would be studying until 6am,” said Lucy.

Students who have already returned are also facing uncertainty in regard to their course progression and future exchange opportunities.

Vishal Karnamadakala, a third-year International Studies/Law student, came back from South Korea just a few days before his exchange classes began.

Vishal was forced to terminate his entire exchange program as he could not be sure that his host university would continue to provide online courses after the UNSW census date.

This means that he would be taking a “huge gamble” to continue his exchange program as he could have ended up paying for exchange units that he would not have been able to complete if the overseas courses eventually moved offline.

Now Vishal is facing the uncertainty of enrolling into courses for T2 and T3.

“Right now I haven’t got any enrolments or know anything from either the Law faculty or the Nucleus Student Hub because all the places for the courses are all full,” he said.

“I’m trying to figure out what to do with that, because it’s possible I’ll have to cancel my exchange program and transfer to an Arts degree just to prevent my degree from becoming seven years long.

“The people at the Student Hub…basically said, ‘we can’t assist, you’ll just have to put yourself on the waiting list. That’s the extent of our support for you.’”

For now, Vishal is trying to defer his exchange to T3. However, whether this will be possible is still unclear.

UNSW’s response to COVID-19 and its current exchange students was also delayed compared to other Australian universities.

Vishal said that exchange students from Swinburne University, the University of Queensland and Melbourne University “were all told about a week before I was that they were required to come home and they were given enrolments for first semester.”

Instead, his first communication from UNSW, an “unclear and vague” survey asking whether he intended to return to Australia or not, “only came a week after most of the other [Australian students from his scholarship program] had already gone home.”

Jialin Lu, third-year Commerce (International) student, is currently completing her exchange studies online after returning to Australia from Edinburgh.

However, Jialin will not be reimbursed the cost of her $1400 flight ticket home, purchased in response to UNSW’s directive to come back home, as UNSW insurance only covers cancellations and changes for pre-existing flights.

This means that only return flights booked before the exchange program commenced will be covered. Tickets booked to return to Australia due to COVID-19 will not be repaid.

As Jialin was completing a year-long program, she did not book a return flight before her exchange began. She thought that this policy was particularly “unfair” considering the price of flight tickets in the current situation.

“You reimburse all of us or you reimburse none of us,” she said.

The SRC is currently liaising with the UNSW Exchange Office to assess exchange students on a case-by-case basis to determine whether they have a legitimate reason to remain in their host countries.

“The SRC has been pushing for clarity,” said Nayonika Battacharya, SRC Welfare Officer. “We are talking to the university management board and different Vice-Chancellors on this matter and staying connected with the students.”

Nayonika said that UNSW wanted exchange students to return so that they would be able to access healthcare in Australia and therefore would not have to face the uncertainty of health cover overseas.

In an email sent to current exchange students on 25 March, the UNSW Exchange Office stated: “Please be assured we are working hard alongside Senior Leadership at UNSW on an outcome…and we are moving as fast as we can to provide you with a decision.”

The Exchange Office has provided a number of contacts if students are in an emergency overseas, including International SOS and Dr Bill Kefalas, Director of UNSW Health and Wellbeing.

Students are able to seek “emergency coverage” from EDFO Finance Help if they are “stranded overseas due to medical or civil quarantine situations and cannot leave”. The UNSW Travel Service Manager can also assist with booking return flights to Australia.

If an exchange student requires assistance in light of the COVID-19 situation, they are invited to contact the SRC by emailing srcpresident@arc.unsw.edu.au or srcgeneralsecretary@arc.unsw.edu.au.

If a UNSW exchange student is in need of emergency assistance, please call International SOS on+ 61 2 9372 2468 citing the membership number 12 AYCA 086 931.

The UNSW Exchange Office did not respond to requests for comment.

*Names have been changed.

Clarification (1 April 2020): International students on outbound exchange from UNSW have not been required to return to Australia. These students are able to return to their home countries to finish their exchange programme online.