In September 2020, Queens University Belfast chartered a direct flight from Qatar Airways carrying close to 400 students from Beijing to Belfast. The charter carried both new & returning students. The reported cost was £ 600,000, with students being charged at the normal cost of a comparable commercial flight. The university took this decision independently and with the assistance of an agent.
All 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 & supported” quarantine accommodation. Upon arrival, the students were even welcome by the Lord Mayor of Belfast. In another indication of how seriously Queens University is taking its responsibility to returning international students, the university has produced a safe arrivals guide specifically addressing international student needs & concerns during COVID-19. All this has helped reduce stress & anxiety for those making the trip to Belfast & provided reassurance for students & their families.
Queens University’s actions has led to a similar action being initiated by 23 other UK universities, all of whom have now 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 has arranged for students to be transported from 27 other cities to take a flight to the UK. Strict social distancing measures have been put in place during the check-in & boarding process. Special personnel have been arranged to verify health codes & check temperatures. The cabin toilets & communal areas are cleaned & disinfected every hour during flights. Spaces have been allocated in the rear of the flight for emergency use.
The above action being undertaken by UK universities is understandable in light of the fact that 35% of foreign students from outside the EU, who enrolled in UK Higher Education institutions in 2018/19, were from China. Nevertheless, the proactive action is commendable in light of the circumstances that international students find themselves in and will be of benefit to both international students & the UK. It is also an example that can be emulated by other countries to their benefit.
These actions also provide plenty of motivation for all British Universities to directly organize 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 & living expenses this year alone.
Latest figures from the “Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS)” highlight a pleasant surprise in the form of a 9% increase in the number of undergraduate students admitted to British universities from outside the EU. It must also be noted that UCAS data typically reflects only half of the international undergraduates coming to the UK, with the remainder applying to institutions directly to institutions rather than via the CAS.