By Arj Singh
Sign up now to get The Waugh Zone, our evening politics briefing, by email.
Universities have warned the government they could face a significant financial hit if coronavirus discourages or stops Chinese students coming to study in the UK.
HuffPost UK understands universities have raised concerns with Whitehall officials about the possible impact of lost tuition fees as the coronavirus outbreak continues.
The number of Chinese students in the UK has soared by 34% in the last five years to 120,000 – accounting for more than one in three international students from outside the EU.
International students are a vital source of income, contributing around £7.3bn a year to the UK economy and paying tuition fees of between £10,000 to £35,000 a year, compared to £9,000 for UK students.
The scale of the spread, and the longer-term impact it could have, is an area that does require further thought by government
But the state of near-lockdown in China, with British Airways cancelling all direct flights to or to Beijing and Shanghai, has sparked concerns that students may not be able to come to the UK or may be discouraged or have problems applying for the next academic year.
The higher education sector is also concerned about how the disease could hit research collaborations and knowledge exchange, for example through Chinese academics visiting UK institutions and vice versa, HuffPost UK understands.
MillionPlus, which represents Britain’s modern universities, urged the government to help institutions deal with the coronavirus epidemic.
Its CEO Dr Greg Walker said: “The priority for all parties is to ensure the safety and health of all those who may be affected or who may be at risk.
“The government have accordingly moved staff from and within China, rearranging exams or visa interviews as necessary.
“The scale of the spread, and the longer-term impact it could have, is an area that does require further thought by government as the full extent of the outbreak becomes clearer.
“Universities are making preparations for different eventualities and contingencies.
“Individual institutions will have emergency crisis plans in place as part of their risk strategies but government support on areas beyond their direct control is essential.”
Walker said there was a need to ensure Chinese students in the UK who could be due to return home after their visas expire get adequate support including extended stays or temporary accommodation.
“Similarly, if qualifications cannot be undertaken or visas obtained in China, we need to make sure we have the processes in place in our universities and at the Home Office to deal with potential dips or back-logs that may arise,” Walker said.
He urged the government to help universities “get ahead” of any potential consequences of coronavirus.
“International students make a phenomenal contribution to the UK all round, and Chinese students make up a large part of this group and must continue to be welcomed,” he said.
“Universities are working with the government to ensure talented students come here from across the world and that we remain outward facing in challenging times.
“This will require us to work closely together in this period and taking practical, sensible and timely steps.”