‘Major disruption’ to student mobility from coronavirus feared

Countries close borders to visitors from China and language testing suspended

February 4, 2020
People wear face masks as they wait at Hankou Railway Station on January 22, 2020 in Wuhan, China
Source: Getty

The deadly coronavirus outbreak could have a major impact on international student mobility, sector leaders have warned, after thousands of learners were left stranded in China.

Australia, New Zealand, the US and Singapore were among countries that had banned entry to foreigners travelling from China as of the start of this week, while Japan and South Korea were denying entry to travellers from Hubei province, the centre of the outbreak.

Meanwhile, British Airways had suspended all flights between the UK and mainland China. One of two individuals who had tested positive for coronavirus in the UK as of the start of this week was a student at the University of York.

These moves were expected to have a significant impact on student flows in the short term at least, with Australia expected to be particularly hard hit. Unlike northern hemisphere institutions, Australian universities break for about three months at the turn of the year, and many Chinese students had gone home for Lunar New Year celebrations with the intention of returning to Australia around the beginning of March.

Mike Gow, lecturer in international business at Coventry University, whose research focuses on China, said universities would be scrambling to limit the economic damage caused by the travel ban.

“From a public health perspective, it’s good timing for Australia,” Dr Gow said of the restriction’s potential to help control the spread of the virus. “From an educational perspective, though, it is a major problem,” he added.

The travel ban could cost Australia’s international education sector up to A$8 billion (£4.1 billion), The Australian reported, taking account of tuition fee refunds, accommodation costs and the need to reorganise teaching calendars.

The impact is likely to be concentrated in prestigious Group of Eight universities, some of which rely on Chinese student revenues for more than a fifth of their total income.

Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said universities would extend the offers of flexibility they had made to international students in recent days, including online study and options to defer start dates.

But Mr Gow warned that it might prove difficult to keep in touch with students stuck in China because internet restrictions could prevent their accessing virtual learning networks. “Some might not be even able to view their institutional emails,” he added.

There could also be a longer-term impact on student flows as a result of the suspension of testing in mainland China by the providers of the IELTS and TOEFL English proficiency exams, which are used to accredit individuals applying to study in the West.

Vivienne Stern, director of Universities UK International, said the coronavirus outbreak and measures to control it could also cause “some disruption” to the gao kao university entrance exam taken by about 10 million Chinese students annually.

In addition, UK recruitment efforts in China could face “significant disruption”, Ms Stern said. “Our priority is supporting universities on public health issues and dealing with any visa issues [for current students],” she said.

Ms Stern said it was important for UK universities to recognise the anxiety and distress that many of their Chinese students might face. “Many will be extremely concerned for family and friends, as well as around their visa status,” she said, adding that it was vital that institutions “do not feed fear or suspicion about students” from China.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Virus could bring ‘major disruption’

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