Now this: vaccine requirements to go to university

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The United States is trailblazing, as university after university is mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for students to be able to return to study this autumn. Rutgers was the first, but now at least eight colleges and universities have followed suite. While the United States is the first to see this ripple effect, hints of similar calls can be found in other countries as well, including India and France.  In Dubai, weekly PCR tests are already mandatory for all staff at schools and universities. One can only imagine it is a matter of time before that is extended to students too.

Image: VCU Capital News Service

Some colleges in the United States are leaving the decision to students rather than imposing vaccines for study. While no global survey has been done on students’ opinion on this issue, a poll in the United Kingsom was carried out with around 1,000 students by the University of East London. Among those participating, 60% thought vaccines should be required for in-person tuition, while 55% felt that vaccines should be required for those living in shared accommodation. In the United States, a poll by College Pulse among 1,000 students also found that the majority were in favour:  71% said colleges have the right to require students to get vaccinated before returning to campus’.

One reason for hesitating over whether vaccines can be enforced is whether there are legal grounds for such a mandate. The argument is now being pulled apart worldwide in the discussions about vaccine passports. This would not be the first vaccine required to be educated, however. A recent survey done in 2020 of 14 countries from across every WHO region and World Bank income level classification found that eight of them – Albania, Argentina, Chile, Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan and Uganda – require immunization for school enrolment and for school-aged children.

Plenty of other examples can be found outside this group. In France, eleven vaccines are obligatory to enrol in creches and pre-primary school. Nine are required for children in Canada and in Czechia. All 50 states in the United States require students to receive some vaccines, with exemptions for medical, religious, and philosophical reasons. Russia also bans enrolment for children not vaccinated against common diseases.

As for higher education, in one survey covering 100 institutions throughout the country, nearly all required at least one vaccine to be able to study. The MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella, was required at 88% of campuses surveyed.  Even outside common childhood diseases, colleges in the United States have been known to require students to be vaccinated for other types of infectious diseases, with exceptions provided for medical and religious reasons. A California court required students to have a flu shot to benefit from the University of California system, for instance.

Whether such demands have legal standing, however, might take some time to determine. In the United States, where the debate is heating up, one issue brief from the American Council on Education said that ‘the legal right of institutions to require COVID-19 vaccination for students seems likely to be upheld as vaccine availability increases’. Meanwhile at Virginia Tech, officials determined that they cannot be mandated until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given them its full approval. 

Another dimension is whether enforced vaccination requirements might impact on the prospects for international students. Australia has said it will provide the COVID-19 vaccine to foreign students for free, proposing a digital vaccination passport scheme. There, where international students are worth $40 billion a year for the country, their biggest concern is that a delayed vaccine roll out might not make this happen fast enough.  There are no answers at present, however, about what universities will do for students who have received a vaccine that has not been approved by their host country.

If not everyone can get the vaccine, obvious equity concerns appear. Indonesia, for instance, ruled out compulsory vaccination for school admission well before the pandemic arrived, with the Jakarta Education Agency deputy head Bowo Irianto saying that ‘Jakarta has a very varied population, so access to schools must be open wide and in a non-discriminatory way’.  With so many competing factors to an education already at play around the world, is it wise to put up an additional barrier to access? And while some countries get stuck into the legal aspects, we must not forget how lucky they are to be in such a position. In Africa, only 0.6% of the population have been vaccinated. Just last week, news emerged that low-income countries have received just 0.2% of all COVID-19 shots given.

An obligatory COVID-19 vaccine consequence may be that universities become distribution centres, as well as taking on responsibilities to carry out campaigns about the importance of inoculation. Rutgers University has already declared it will take on these roles. In Dubai, schools and universities have also taken it upon themselves to intensify vaccination campaigns to return to a normal campus life. The Higher Colleges of Technology, in coordination with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health and Prevention launched a joint integrated campaign to vaccinate its students and staff against COVID-19.  That some universities can provide such services does not mean that all can, however.

The need to prevent mass contagion of COVID-19 among students is real. Pockets of outbreaks have been linked to tertiary institutions in South Africa and in the United Kingdom. Data from the New York Times showed that over half a million cases of COVID-19 infections have been linked to American colleges and universities since the pandemic began. If the vast majority of a population is vaccinated, it seems more likely that students might find that inoculation is their ticket to study, perhaps partly as a tool to increase the chances of crowd immunity.

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