UK universities mull more charter flights in global student race

Moves could give UK an edge in race for new entrants over countries with tighter travel restrictions

July 8, 2020

More UK universities could charter flights to bring in overseas students as competition heats up among higher education sectors keen to show that they will pull out all the stops to help international students amid the Covid-19 crisis.

Discussions are believed to be ongoing between the UK sector and companies that may be able to arrange flights from countries such as China and India to ensure students are able to avoid potential complications caused by a lack of scheduled services due to the pandemic.

It comes after it emerged that Queen’s University Belfast would charter a flight from Beijing in September, and that the University of Bolton was making plans to fly in students from India, China and Africa.

Jamie Arrowsmith, assistant director of policy at Universities UK International, said that it was supporting institutions by exploring the logistics and costs around chartering flights.

He added that the “preferred outcome” would still be for airlines “to realise that there is an opportunity and there will be demand”. However, presuming that international students are able to come to the UK in the autumn, “we want to make sure that we’re addressing any remaining barriers to students studying in the UK, including the availability of air travel”.

Flying a large charter aircraft from somewhere like Beijing is thought to cost about £900 per person if the flight is full, potentially less than a scheduled service.

But there are many other challenges around arranging such flights, such as securing agreement from authorities at each end, transferring students to campuses, and supporting them through any quarantine period.

UK universities are believed to be thinking about clubbing together in regional groups to offer such a service and spread any risks.

“We’re encouraging institutions to talk to each other in their local areas and regions to work out if it’s possible to do this collectively,” Mr Arrowsmith said.

Among the areas with universities thought to be looking at the possibility of charter flights are south-west England and South Wales, and north-west England and the Midlands.

Other countries that have also been looking at the prospect of charter flights include Australia, where universities in at least two states have been looking to trial their use for returning students.

However, the politics of using charter flights in Australia has been complicated until now by the fact that the country has tighter travel restrictions and approval from the federal government would be needed before they can take place.

This has led to concerns that the UK could be stealing a march on competitor nations by exploring the use of charter flights to bring in new entrants.

However, Australia – which is halfway through its academic year – was expected to announce new visa arrangements this week. The plans were expected to include fee waivers for students forced to extend their stay in Australia because of the pandemic, and to clarify whether online classes count towards the period of study required to qualify for post-course work rights.

“After three and a half months of advocacy, education providers are frustrated at delays but hopeful that Australia will be in a more competitive position soon,” said Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia.

Mr Arrowsmith said that while the UK was aware of “what competitors are doing”, its “main focus” was on supporting potential students.

“We need to do what we can to provide them with clarity about what to expect, and ensure they understand that our universities are open and will be ready to welcome them in the autumn,” he said.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: UK universities mull more charter flights in international student race

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Reader's comments (3)

IF these Universities succeed in doing this and bring in fresh infective sources of Covid-19 the WHOLE sector will be held responsible, it's been bad enough with lack of quarantine, 14 days self isolation isn't enforced quarantine, allowing British passport holders to freely circulate whilst infective when they'ed returned from 'home' in 'South Asia'. Or are they going to lock them in, as Chinese Universities do normally at night not just during their Covid lockdown, in the hope of preventing problems? Money over safety seems to be the motivation, imagine the headlines "Universities fly in second Covid wave", and the resultant backlash staff, not just students, will suffer.
The numbers of daily deaths from COVID-19 in the UK are currently the highest in Europe and much higher than those in China. With pubs reopening and British public largely ignoring social distancing and not wearing masks in public spaces, all international students will expose themselves to a large risk coming to the UK for their studies.
And then there's this: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.07.06.20147702v1

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