Universities Face Financial Hit If Foreign Students Stay Home

Chinese university enrollments in the West may drop due to various facets of the virus crisis

The coronavirus pandemic and its many different ripple effects could point toward one conclusion: In the future, there may be a drastic decline in the number of Chinese students who apply to schools in Western countries, according to a report by The New York Times.

That could be a bad thing for universities. Many of them depend on large influxes of Chinese students’ money and could end up seeing a dent in revenues if it happens.

There are other factors contributing to the potential shortfall in the future: qualifying exams have been postponed for now. Travel bans from multiple countries have sent flight rates spiraling down.

Some Chinese citizens have a disdain for the way the West has let the virus spread so far, especially as China’s own rates seem to be stabilizing in the past few days. In the U.K., Chinese students were astonished that the country moved so slowly on cutting big, live events and moving classes online.

The U.K. has more than 120,000 Chinese students enrolled in its schools and, at some major universities, Chinese students make up roughly one-fifth of their student bodies. Their combined fees are around 1.5 billion pounds ($1.74 billion).

In the U.S., there were almost 400,000 Chinese students studying last year.

If the changes are as drastic as some experts predict, the shift in revenue for universities could be “seismic,” said Kerry Brown, Chinese studies professor at King’s College London.

Australia’s 200,000 Chinese students, if unable to travel to the country for their first terms, would mean a $4 billion shortfall.

Racism is also a factor. In one case, according to the Times story, a student overheard two construction workers as they passed by posters of Asian student government candidates, muttering “Vote corona.” And in London, Chinese students reported feeling a conflict — should they wear a face mask, even though it may pose a greater risk of racial bias or even attacks?

As China has seen its own numbers of infections evening out the last week or so, some Chinese students based in the West have begun planning to travel back home.

All of this could mean a very different future for universities used to Chinese students spending their money on tuition. The resentment is compounded on previous ills, such as the trade tensions last year as President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on Chinese goods, and the confusion and disorder of Brexit in the U.K.

Both the U.S. and the U.K. face multiple sources of fiscal woes due to the virus.