Outbreak calls for a people-first response

Universities must meet the disruption caused by the new coronavirus with technological dexterity, tactical flexibility, strategic vision – and compassion

February 13, 2020
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As efforts to contain the coronavirus outbreak intensify, the disruption to everything from financial markets to university enrolments reminds us how connected we all are.

In our news pages this week, we consider the impact on international students from China, particularly those studying in Australia, where the extended summer holiday has left many stuck at home after they flew back to China for Christmas and stayed on to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

This is an urgent issue for universities not only because of the educational impact on those quarantined students, but because of the potential implications too for institutions’ bottom lines.

It has long been warned that universities in some of the developed systems – Australia and the UK in particular – might have allowed themselves to become too reliant on tuition fees paid by students from China, too exposed should anything happen to jeopardise that revenue stream.

Something has now happened.

In the UK, according to the most recent figures, Chinese students account for 10 per cent of all income at a dozen or so universities. Last year, 86,000 started courses in the UK – an increase of almost 50 per cent on four years earlier.

But this pales in comparison with Australia. UNSW Sydney and the University of Sydney draw more than a fifth of their total income from Chinese student fees.

Talk to university leaders, and they are aware of the financial risks of such saturation, but many say they have been pushed to it, especially by cuts to research funding.

Australia has been particularly hit by the coronavirus disruption because of the timing of the outbreak, with Australian term times meaning that as many as two-thirds of Chinese students were back at home as the virus spread.

The result is that almost 100,000 students who should be in lecture halls are believed to be absent.

So what can universities do? In our news pages, we look at the way in which online platforms, now a staple of learning and teaching, might help to mitigate the impact.

There are difficulties – not least the uncertainty about how long the separation of students from teachers may go on. At this point, it seems unwise even to guess.

It may also be the case that whereas some faculty – perhaps most these days – are fully up to speed with and regularly use the online learning systems that are ubiquitous in universities, not all will be as proficient.

It is worth also reflecting that this issue is not just about students who fly around the world to study – plenty will find themselves cut off from universities within China, too.

And the response required is not just about moving instruction online.

Writing in The Conversation, Christopher Ziguras, professor of global studies at RMIT University, and Ly Tran, ARC future fellow at Deakin University, suggest a raft of possible interventions.

These might include fee refunds or deferrals; support with visa issues, accommodation and employment; and the possibility of intensive courses, or even summer or winter offerings, to help students catch up.

Speaking to Times Higher Education this week, Ian Jacobs, vice-chancellor of UNSW (which estimates that it has 10,000 students stranded in China), said his university would be focusing on deferral because it operated a timetable with three entry points to programmes, allowing greater flexibility.

For all the focus on the disruption that this unprecedented situation is having on study, and on universities, Jacobs and others rightly point out that the most important question is how to support the students themselves, and how to ensure that they have clarity about their options.

Amid the logistical chaos, Ziguras and Tran add, “a human, supportive and respectful response from the university communities is vital”.


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