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Schools awaiting clarity on handling foreign students amid corona threat

Students. Photo is illustrative.
Students. Photo is illustrative. Source: ERR

Institutes of higher education in Estonia are awaiting clearer guidelines from the government regarding how to handle foreign students while the threat of the novel coronavirus still persists. Among other matters that currently remain unclear are whether students arriving from third countries should quarantine or self-isolate upon arrival in the country and who is to foot the bill for possible extra expenses incurred.

A student dorm at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) offers two-bed rooms with a shared kitchen and bathroom. The new school year is right around the corner and decisions regarding student housing should be made soon, but it remains unclear how many foreign students, if any, can be placed together upon their arrival — and whether they should be provided meals if they must quarantine, reported ETV news broadcast "Aktuaalne kaamera."

"Do universities have to ensure quarantines or self-isolation?" TalTech Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs Hendrik Voll asked. "They involve different requirements. Requirements for quarantine are very strict. That means that students should be placed one per room, and TalTech doesn't have the capacity to room all arrivals separately upon their arrival."

The university is expecting 317 arrivals from third countries, but this figure does not include existing students, who may have traveled home in the meantime.

Universities should be arranging transport and testing for their arriving foreign students, but no one is exactly sure how to go about this. The only thing for certain is that testing will cost €160 per student.

Two Estonian universities had recently announced they had joined university consortiums. A so-called "superuniversity of technology" is also in the process of being established in Europe.

"The number of TalTech students will exceed 100,000 hopefully in the near future already," Voll said. "This idea and plan is based on the fact that you get accepted to one university and are a full member of all other partnered universities. Essentially the free movement of students, like the Schengen principle."

International student bodies exist everywhere. Beijing, for example, began mass-testing at all of its universities, and several top universities have filed suits against the state in the United States.

Total numbers of international students in Estonia are significantly smaller, but confusion nonetheless abounds. Universities consulted with the Ministry of Education and Research on Friday, but did not gain any clarity. Neither the Health Board nor the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) knows or wants to talk more precisely about any related requirements.

The Federation of Estonian Student Unions (EÜL) knows how foreign students are feeling.

"They have felt as though there has been a certain change in atmosphere," EÜL vice-chairman Joonatan Nõgisto said. "They have understood that the state has started to view them a bit more unfavorably. This raises questions. It is difficult to say how this will shape the reputation of Estonian higher education in the near future."

Student caps are likely to appear in the square in front of the Riigikogu at the beginning of the fall semester, as the EÜL believes that the short-term solution regarding learning mobility is rather a trade-off for a more dangerous long-term plan if a bill drawn up by the Ministry of the Interior significantly restricting the rights of international students in Estonia is pushed through the Riigikogu this fall.

"The perspective should be existing problems," Nõgisto said. "Solutions should be a bit smarter than just taking an ax to things, and very strict and definitive restrictions."


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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