The University of Otago gave New Zealand students on exchange overseas two days to decide whether to return to study in New Zealand in light of Covid-19.
Alex, who was on exchange in Texas, received emails recommending she return because flights were being dramatically cut, saying there was a high possibility she might be stranded.
Other universities are offering greater support to their students abroad. Guelph University, in Ontario, Canada, provided each exchange student with $1000 to help cover flights and other expenses. Queen’s University also provided financial support for students to return to their home universities.
In an email sent on March 11 to students currently on exchange by Jason Cushen, the Director of the Otago International Office, students were reassured that “we are focused on your exchange remaining the positive experience you had planned for”.
In that email the University provided students with four options. The options were: continuing the exchange with no change, continuing the exchange with a distance/online programme provided by the host university, cancelling the exchange and returning to Otago to continue semester one, or withdrawing from the exchange and making your own plans until semester two. The option to return to study at Otago expired on March 13.
Students were encouraged to “carefully reflect on these options in light of the circumstances that [they] currently find [themselves] in”. The University acknowledged that these options would not necessarily be available to every student. Zoom sessions were scheduled for consultations with advisors.
Although the University said that they would “support whichever option you choose and will do what we can to assist in mitigating further impact to your study,” many students did not feel supported.
“We’ve received a few emails from them this whole time,” said one student. “Whereas every other exchange student from other universities was sent home last week.”
Students are not being offered any support for flights home despite the rises in international flight prices. “[There was] no financial support, not even a mention of it,” said one student on exchange in the UK.
A spokeswoman for the University said that if “students’ insurance does not cover their travel costs, and there are situations of financial hardship, the University will look at providing cost-recovery on a case by case basis. Emergency funding options may also be considered, if students meet the criteria.” The spokeswoman also noted that Otago Exchange students have access to their Otago email addresses and can go to the Otago website for updates.
On March 18, five days after the option to return to study at Otago expired, students were sent an email advising them to come home. That email referred to the Government’s travel advisory notice.
That email, also sent by Jason Cushen, stated that “Unfortunately, due to the point we are in the Otago Semester One academic calendar, the time it may take to secure a flight home, and the requirements for self-isolation once back in New Zealand, the University is no longer in a position to consider you joining Semester One classes (unless you selected this option in response to my previous email of last week).”
Andre and Zoe were both on exchange and able to take up the limited time offer to study back at Otago for Semester One. Andre said he “appreciated this option, but it’s a pain in the ass to catch up on four weeks on classes.”
Overall, both Andre and Zoe were happy with the University’s response. “I have about seven people working with me to make sure I can enrol in Otago papers, and they're helping us coordinate accommodation with UniFlats,” said Zoe.
Other students did not manage to take up the offer to return to Otago for Semester One. Alex is planning to take papers from Texas by distance.
“We can stay on exchange if we want but [Otago] would prefer if we didn’t,” said Alex. “This is such a stressful time for many of us exchange students overseas. It’s very upsetting and I don’t think there has been enough mental support."