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UK universities charter flights to bring international students back to campus

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Two dozen universities have so far chartered flights to bring students – some returning, some new – from China to the UK
  • Strict COVID-19 safety precautions are in place to protect both international and domestic students

Dozens of universities in the United Kingdom have begun chartering flights to bring Chinese students safely to their campuses. There is financial risk that attaches to flight charters, but it is much easier to understand the move in light of the fact that fully 35% of the foreign students from outside the EU who enrolled in UK higher education in 2018/19 came from China. In 2018/19 there were 120,385 Chinese students enrolled, up 13% over the previous academic year, and fully one in five students in British higher education institutions today are from countries outside the UK.

The latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) highlight a pleasant surprise in the form a 9% increase in the number of undergraduate students admitted to British universities from outside of the EU. UCAS notes as well that the increase in non-EU numbers for this year is partially offset by a 2% decline in undergraduate admissions for EU students. (The UCAS data typically reflects less than half of the international undergraduates coming to the UK, with the remainder of undergraduates, and postgraduate students as well, applying directly to institutions rather than via the central admissions service.)

“It was always likely that EU numbers would be down, given the Brexit uncertainties and shenanigans,” commented Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute. “No one predicted such a big increase in non-EU international students and we have to wait to see if they will all actually arrive and then stay the course.”

The “actually arrive” part of that statement is the key, especially as travel restrictions remain in place across many borders and international flight services are still limited as the 2020/21 academic year gets underway. Indeed, there is ample evidence from student surveys in China and other key sending markets that large percentages of admitted students are planning to defer their programme starts to 2021.

All of these factors provide plenty of motivation for British universities to directly organise international charters. Absent such measures, the country’s universities are facing significant declines in international student revenues – an economic impact that Universities UK has previously projected could reach as high as £463 million in reduced spending on tuition and living expenses this year alone.

Queens starts the trend

Russell Group member Queens University Belfast – where Chinese students represent close to half (47%) of the foreign student population – was the first to charter a direct flight from Qatar Airways carrying close to 400 students from Beijing to Belfast in September. The reported cost was £600,000 (US$770,000), with a university spokesperson saying that tickets were “charged to students at the normal cost of a comparable commercial flight.”

The charter carried both new and returning students, and it brought back to the university more than one in four Chinese students enrolled at the university this year. The total Chinese population at Queens University Belfast is more than 1,000 students.

Zara McBrearty, communications officer of Queen’s University Belfast, told the Global Times that,

“The university took this decision independently and with the assistance of an agent, to help reduce stress and anxiety for those making the trip to Belfast and to provide reassurance for our students and their families.”

All the students on the flight had to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken 48 hours before departure. Upon arrival, the university arranged for private transportation directly to the campus, where students then went into “safe and supported quarantine accommodation.”

University representatives were not the only ones to welcome the Chinese students when they arrived in Belfast. In a video addressed to the students, Alderman Frank McCoubrey, Lord Mayor of Belfast, said,

“We understand what a huge decision this must have been to leave your homes and country in the current climate. We are delighted by your choice and can ensure you of a friendly welcome and an unforgettable time here in the city.”

In another indication of how seriously Queens University Belfast is taking its responsibility to returning foreign students, the university has produced a safe arrivals guide specifically addressing international students’ needs and concerns during COVID-19.

A next flight bringing students from China to Belfast, again arranged with Qatar Airlines, is scheduled to occur on 3 October 2020.

Other universities follow suit

Soon after Queens University Belfast’s first intake of Chinese students from its chartered flight, 23 UK universities, including the University of Manchester, banded together to charter their own flights through Chinese carrier Hainan Airlines. The first flight occurred on 21 September, bringing Chinese students from Chongqing to Manchester. Hainan Airlines arranged for students to be transported from 27 other cities in China to take the flight, and when students arrived in Manchester, they then went on to universities in North and South West of England and Wales.

Jordan Kenny, news and media relations manager with the University of Manchester, told the Global Times that there “will be daily flights with domestic connections from a number of airports in China.” He noted that “students are able to travel directly to their university without mixing with other passengers, as required by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

Again, there are strict safety protocols in place. Hainan Airlines text messages and emails students regularly to take nucleic acid tests 72 hours before departure. And the airline added that,

“Strict social distancing measures have been implemented during the check-in and boarding process. Special personnel have been arranged to verify health codes and check temperatures. The cabin toilets and communal areas are being cleaned and disinfected every hour during flights. Spaces have been allocated in the rear of the flight for emergency use.”

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