Thousands of Chinese students whose English-language tests have been cancelled due to the Sars crisis may have to defer taking up places for a year unless UK universities take over the process, the British Council warned this week.
About 12,000 students a month who would normally sit the International English Language Testing System examinations at British Council centres in China are having to wait for the lifting of a ban on large public gatherings, introduced to stop the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, before they can take the tests.
Of these students, about 3,000 a month would normally apply for a place at a UK higher education institution. Since passing the test is a prerequisite for entry to most courses, they will not be able to start their studies here unless the ban ends or UK institutions make arrangements to do the tests themselves.
The British Council is preparing to deal with a backlog at its centres in China once public examinations resume. But promotions director Suzanne Alexander warned: "Every month that goes by without testing exacerbates the situation as the backlog grows."
The council is also attempting to assess the impact that disruption of school-leaving and degree examinations in China is likely to have on applications. Ms Alexander said UK institutions may have to review their admissions policies.
She said: "If there are students who are unable to complete their exams in China, institutions may have to think about whether to accept some students on the basis of their academic record to date, or perhaps to defer offers.
In the case of English tests, they may need to increase the number of places available on their pre-sessional English courses."
Testing incoming Chinese students would be a big task if UK institutions decided to take it on. By March 5, 810 Chinese students had applied for undergraduate places in the UK - 44 per cent more than the same time last year. The figure is expected to rise despite the Sars problems.
• Chinese higher education has been hit hard by the Sars crisis because of government misinformation and misplaced idealism, according to a Chinese academic working at Leeds University.
Ruru Li, a senior lecturer in Chinese studies at Leeds who has just returned from a pastoral visit to China, said universities outside Beijing had not taken as many precautions against Sars as those in the capital because they received different advice from authorities.
She was concerned to find that Tianjin Normal University, just outside Beijing, had not received the advice to sterilise campus buildings as was given to Capital Normal University in Beijing.
"In Beijing they had received instructions from the higher education department about the precautions they should take, but in Tianjin apparently they had not had this instruction," she said.
Dr Li, who has been teaching at Leeds for 15 years since gaining her PhD there, advised the university's students to leave China as panic began to set in.
She said: "The panic was more serious than the disease itself. Students had virtually stopped going to classes, so I could not see any reason for them to stay. I was worried they were more likely to catch the disease by going to other public places if they were not attending the university."