Foreign scholars to Czech officials: 'Study is essential travel'

Academics who spent years trying to qualify for programs in Europe say Covid travel restrictions put their careers at risk.

Kathrin Yaromich

Written by Kathrin Yaromich
Published on 30.07.2021 18:00 (updated on 12.09.2021)

Students from extreme risk countries on the Czech government’s travel map are now permitted to stay in the Czech Republic for their studies, Health Minister Adam Vojtěch announced after the July 30 cabinet meeting. The decision comes after efforts of student communities who petitioned the Czech authorities to exempt students from the Covid travel ban, as their places and scholarships could have been lost. This would have ruined years of preparation, and had a long-lasting impact on their careers.

The travel ban had been affecting 18 countries, marked in black on the Czech travelers map: Botswana, Brazil, India, South Africa, Colombia, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nepal, Paraguay, Peru, Russia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tunisia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

 “Good news for international students. With regard to the approaching beginning of the academic year, students from countries with an extreme risk of infection can now apply for a long-term stay for the purpose of university studies in the Czech Republic. The government also supported this today, ” Vojtěch said.

He added that, for example, medical students would lose another academic year otherwise.

Until this change, only Czech citizens, foreigners with residence in the Czech Republic and diplomats were allowed to arrive from these countries. They must still stay in temporary quarantine and get tested for coronavirus.

Students and researchers from these countries had started several petitions and made appeals on social media calling for the Czech authorities to consider study as essential travel.

The change came as a relief to students who had earned places abroad but could not travel to fill them.

Like many of her counterparts, Shreya Paudel encountered an unexpected obstacle on her academic journey. A year ago, as she was completing her undergraduate degree and applying for graduate programs, she would not have thought that the biggest challenge for her would be arranging the relocation to a new study destination.

In the face of an uncertain future, Paudel decided to take the lead. She started a petition and the #studyisessential initiative to bring together students like herself from red and black zone countries.

“I was in direct contact with 150+ students and researchers from India who risked losing Ph.D. funding, partial scholarship in institutions all across the Czech Republic,” she said.

The initiative was aimed at improving organization among the academic community; drawing the attention of all relevant authorities; urging the European countries to consider students as an essential category of travel, and requesting them to recognize that vaccination status, previous Covid history, quarantine and testing requirements are adequate parameters to allow students to enter the country safely.

The lift of the travel ban has brought lots of certainty in the lives of students. “We're enthused; I can't put it into words,” Paudel said.

One scholar who asked to remain anonymous from an African extreme-risk country said she has been struggling for over five years creating applications for Master’s scholarships. “I cannot afford to pay for myself. My family cannot afford to pay for me either, even for an opportunity within my country,” she said.

"I was so sad and stressed because due to the pandemic and the travel restrictions that were in place, I was on the verge of losing the one opportunity I have worked so hard for," she added.

The lift of the travel ban has brought her a great sense of relief.

Meanwhile, the Russian-speaking community also made efforts to draw the attention of the Czech government in regard to the right to study. Blogger Anton Vaykhel and his team, who have helped raise awareness about many issues expats in the Czech Republic face, wrote an open letter to the Czech Rectors Conference. As of July 28, the petition had more than 1,200 signatures.

Vaykhel has also published an open letter to Czech universities urging them to solve the situation that a generation of future foreign students of Czech universities has found themselves in.

Denis Babich, a member of the student organization Akademická Unie FRRMS, is another advocate for the adjustments in the travel ban. Although the situation has not affected him directly, he and Vaykhel have consolidated efforts to help the student community.

"My solidarity and desire to contribute to solving the problem of the entry of foreign students emerges not only from the fact that I am an international student. It also comes from the realization that foreign students are useful to the society in which I was accepted. Therefore, the activity of our impromptu team brings joy to me, I see value in it,” he said.

Babich said he believes Vyakhel has played a key role in the decision of the authorities to lift the ban for students.

Despite the coronavirus epidemic, the number of foreign students at Czech universities increased by 8 percent last year, according to the Education Ministry data released earlier this year. This occurred probably also because people may enroll at university and study from a distance, the Czech News Agency (ČTK) reported.

But there was a marked decrease in the number of short-term study stays of people from abroad, due to anti-epidemic measures that worsened possibilities to travel. In 2020, 9,740 foreign students arrived for short-term study stays, while 15,813 arrived for such stays in 2019. Foreigners form nearly 17 percent of all students at Czech universities.

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