Following Oxfordshire’s recent entry into Tier 4, the University has published a statement on its central web page stressing their expectation that “students…return for Hilary term broadly in line with the arrangements communicated at the end of Michaelmas term.” 

The strong wording of this announcement—especially given the rapidly changing situation in the UK in regard to coronavirus—may well cause controversy amongst students. International students are particularly affected. Trapped in a situation of increasing uncertainty, many are now facing a choice between competing expectations: the University’s order to return, and mounting pressures urging them to stay at home.

 The emergence of the B117 COVID strain has greatly destabilised the situation in the UK. Just two weeks ago, most international students were able to travel abroad with what now seems like a minimum of fuss: two weeks’ quarantine upon arrival in their home country, and the same upon their return. A great number departed overseas, confident that they would be able to fly back for Hilary with no further complications. Amidst the general atmosphere of optimism caused by news of the vaccine, many felt that Britain was on an upward trajectory in its battle with coronavirus.

Now, however, policies have changed all over the globe. In Europe, the long list of countries that have restricted UK travel includes France, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. In the Asia Pacific, South Korea has announced a suspension of flights with Britain until the end of 2020, while Japan and Hong Kong have indefinitely barred entry from the UK, even to domestic nationals.  In South America, Colombia, Argentina and Peru have stopped flights to and from Britain, while El Salvador is extending restrictions to people who have been to Britain in the last 30 days. For students in these countries, flying to Oxford has become a logistical nightmare if not a total impossibility—and for those still determined to return, they must grapple with the very real possibility of not being able to go home for Spring Vacation.

Of course, travelling to the UK is more than just a problem of logistics. The government’s handling of the crisis has garnered criticism from foreign press, attracting some accusations of instability and incompetence. The South China Morning Post—perhaps remembering British media’s harsh depiction of its own country during the initial wave of coronavirus—has published numerous videos and articles about panic buying in the UK and the plight of students trapped there. The Britain that emerges through these posts is a place of uncertainty and turmoil; for students back home, the prospect of returning to Oxford is indubitably becoming less attractive every day.

The benefits of in-person teaching are various, and have been stressed this year more than ever. Whether they outweigh the risks, though, is still up for debate. The University has promised lateral flow tests for everyone upon return to college; many remain concerned, though, about its lack of enforcement power when it comes to making students take these tests, as well as its ability to stagger students’ returns as per Government advice.

For hundreds of international students, it is no longer just a choice between abroad and home: it is a choice between potential danger and assured safety. The fact that high-quality learning and personal safety are now two dichotomised options is a testament to how dire circumstances have become. It can only be hoped that the University responds in a timely and effective manner to future developments.