For universities that have come to rely on China, the coronavirus poses an unprecedented risk

February 9, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC

Liu Feiyang was supposed to start a degree in human resource management at Australia’s Monash University in the first week of March.

Instead, Liu is at home in Chengdu, the capital of China’s western Sichuan province. The 18-year-old is unable to fly to Australia because of a travel ban on arrivals from China enacted to combat the spread of the coronavirus that had sickened more than 37,000 people worldwide and killed over 800 as of Sunday.

“[The travel ban] means that students are unable to enter school normally, and future plans will be completely disrupted,” Liu said of the Australian government’s restrictions.

Zhexuan Huang, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, hails from Wuhan, the virus epicenter that the Chinese government has put under a travel lockdown. He had to take a leave of absence from college because he was unable to leave Wuhan and return to Penn in time for the start of the spring semester, and university policy does not allow for remote learning.

Liu and Huang are not alone. As China’s economy has boomed in recent decades so too as the enrollment of Chinese students abroad. The most recent data from China’s Ministry of Education pegged the number of students at overseas universities at 662,000 in 2018, up from 179,800 in 2008. But the outbreak of the coronavirus and the subsequent travel bans aimed at stemming its spread have trapped many Chinese students at home, unable to return to their foreign schools.

What’s more, universities in China, in line with government mandates, have postponed classes due to the outbreak, leaving foreign students studying abroad in China in utter limbo, ordered by their universities to return to their home campuses or having to make the choice themselves.

“Many of us were completely lost in trying to understand what we had to do,” said one New York University student who planned a semester abroad but returned to New York after NYU Shanghai postponed classes.

A reliance at risk

The coronavirus’s disruption to higher education is likely to reach beyond the student experience. In the U.S., international students are a vital source of revenue for universities because their tuition is rarely discounted. Since most are not eligible or do not require financial aid from private universities, they pay full tuition. International students at public universities pay out-of-state fees.

Concern In China As Mystery Virus Spreads
Chinese women wear protective masks as they walk in the street in Beijing, China. The number of cases of a deadly new coronavirus rose to more than 37,000 on Sunday, Feb. 9.
Kevin Frayer—Getty Images

In 2000, Chinese students made up around 10% of international students in the U.S., versus more than 30% today. There were more than 360,000 Chinese students in the U.S. in the 2017-18 school year, according to the Institute of International Education.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has grown so financially reliant on Chinese students’ tuition that it purchased an insurance policy to protect the university against a sudden drop in Chinese student enrollment caused by a political event, visa issue, or health scare. A UIUC spokesperson said all of UIUC’s 5,800 Chinese students have been contacted and “as far as we know” have returned to campus. “We have not experienced any enrollment drop.”

International student tuition fees are counted as exports in the U.S., so a drop in tuition could hit gross domestic product. International students contributed $39 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, according to the NAFSA Association of International Educators.

International students “significantly subsidize American students,” said Dick Startz, a professor of economics at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “Loss of revenue from international students would be bad for many American universities and disastrous for some.”

Startz said any “really big effects” would only start to happen if the coronavirus was still not contained and travel bans were still in place by May or June, when students would normally be returning to their home countries. For now, Startz said, it is a “potential crisis that would seem to call for some advance planning,” like addressing the uncertainty facing Chinese applicants or considering contingencies for next year’s budget.

Since U.S. college semesters generally started before the U.S. instituted travel restrictions, most Chinese students were back on campus already, said Brad Farnsworth, vice president of global engagement for the American Council on Education. “If the restrictions continue for several months, however, we could see an impact on Fall 2020 enrollments,” he said.

Such an impact would be unprecedented, Farnsworth added.

“The SARS outbreak is the closest comparison, and there are now roughly six times more Chinese students in [the U.S.] Higher education connections are much deeper and more complex, and the costs of disruption will be much greater,” he said.

Universities in Canada and Australia also depend on international students, who inject billions of dollars into the economy and help create hundreds of thousands of jobs. Chinese students make up the largest fraction of the international student body in each country—one third of Canada’s and almost half of Australia’s.

Terrible timing

The rapid spread of the coronavirus coincided with summer break in Australia and the Lunar New Year holiday in China, the country’s biggest holiday when most people return home to their families.

The timing meant that more than half of Australia’s Chinese students—some 100,000, according to the education minister—had not returned to Australia when the government on Feb. 1 banned people who arrived from or transited through China in the last 14 days from entering the country.

Concern In China As Mystery Virus Spreads
A Chinese man wears a protective mask as he waits for a taxi in Beijing, China. Much of the country has shut down as the government tries to control the coronavirus’s spread.
Kevin Frayer—Getty Images

Australia’s universities, English-language colleges, and schools could lose more than $5 billion at “minimum” if the travel ban prevents some Chinese students from returning to school, said Phil Honeywood, chair of an education ministry task force advising the government on the impact of the virus. International students contributed around $25 billion to Australia’s economy during the 2018-19 academic year.

“There’s no doubt the international education sector is one of the absolutely key sectors when it comes to Australia’s exports,” education minister Dan Tehan told Australia’s ABC News.

Tehan added that it was too early to consider refunding students who have already paid their tuition fees, but did not rule out the possibility.

Liu, the Monash student, is against the travel ban; he says it has the potential to upend students’ career trajectories. And he’s well aware of the value he and his peers add to Australia’s economy. “[O]nce Chinese students are banned from entering the country, there will be economic decline,” he argued.

Officials in Australia are mulling the possibility of arranging video and online courses for students in China who are unable to return to campus, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Liu says he’s scared he won’t be able to go to university. “I don’t want to take classes online,” he said.

Liu added that if he is unable to fly to Australia in time for the start of the semester and if Monash—which has 11,000 Chinese students in its 83,000 student body—offers online classes, he will not take them, and instead defer his acceptance.

“I’ll wait for Australia to open its doors,” he said.

Coming home from abroad

After the Chinese government postponed the start of the semester for its own schools and colleges, U.S. universities with centers, research institutes, and study abroad programs in China scrambled to coordinate backup plans.

Some New York University students were already in Shanghai, ready to start their semester abroad, when the university told them that classes would be postponed and moved online.

Alec Liu, a sophomore in NYU’s Stern School of Business, decided to return to the U.S., along with many of his classmates, because he did not want to take remote classes and he was worried about the possibility of being quarantined or not being able to go outdoors in Shanghai.

Another Stern student who returned to New York and wished to remain anonymous said the process of returning was “quite rough” because the university did not provide enough information on how to register for classes or arrange last-minute housing.

A spokesperson for NYU defended the university’s response, saying it reached out to students in the abroad program on Jan. 24 with information about their options to return to New York or stay in Shanghai.

“All students who opted to return to New York to continue with their education were provided with clear housing assignments in a matter of days,” the spokesperson said.

The NYU Shanghai campus will remain closed until at least March 1, in accordance with a municipal government directive. Professors will teach classes remotely starting Feb. 17, and in-person classes will resume “as soon as it is deemed safe and practical,” said June Shih, director of university communications for NYU Shanghai.

But more than 300 full-time students enrolled at New York University Shanghai opted to leave for NYU’s campuses outside of China because of the coronavirus, Shih said.

Monash University’s campus in Suzhou is “closed until further notice,” according to a notice on the school’s website.

Johns Hopkins University’s Hopkins-Nanjing Center in Nanjing in eastern China is still closed for the Lunar New Year holiday. School officials have not determined whether it will reopen or remain closed. Princeton University’s summer program, Princeton in Beijing, which starts in June, is also waiting to see how the coronavirus situation develops before making a decision.

Many universities in China are considering what to do if the entire spring semester ends up cancelled, said Yossi Sheffi, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Transportation and Logistics. MIT has a center in Ningbo, China, that launched in 2016. “So it’s not, ‘Hey, in a week or two everything will be fine.'” he said. “They are making plans ‘just in case’ and waiting to see how the problem proceeds.”

Though initially frustrated by the lockdown in Wuhan, Huang, the Penn student, is now viewing it as an opportunity to connect with his hometown.

Huang, a mathematical economics major, wakes up every day and records his and his relatives’ body temperatures to report to their residential committee. His family has donated money and face masks to local hospitals and is organizing free supplies of the family company’s nutritional canned soups to give to coronavirus patients and front-line medical workers.

It’s difficult to find anyone willing to do the deliveries, Huang said, so he plans to buy protective suits and deliver them himself.

“I was definitely a little frustrated at first that I would not be able to carry out my plan for this semester,” Huang said. “But now I just feel fortunate that I can be here to support my family in this hard time.”

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