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British Universities Explore Charter Flights for International Students

Move could give country an edge in competition for top students.

July 9, 2020
 

More British universities could charter flights to bring in overseas students as competition heats up among higher education sectors keen to show that they will pull out all the stops to help international students amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Discussions are believed to be ongoing between the British higher education sector and companies that may be able to arrange flights from countries such as China and India to ensure students are able to avoid potential complications caused by a lack of scheduled services due to the pandemic.

It comes after it emerged that Queen’s University Belfast would charter a flight from Beijing in September, and that the University of Bolton was making plans to fly in students from India, China and Africa.

Jamie Arrowsmith, assistant director of policy at Universities UK International, said that it was supporting institutions by exploring the logistics and costs around chartering flights.

He added that the “preferred outcome” would still be for airlines “to realize that there is an opportunity and there will be demand.” However, presuming that international students are able to come to Britain in the autumn, “we want to make sure that we’re addressing any remaining barriers to students studying in the U.K., including the availability of air travel."

Flying a large charter aircraft from somewhere like Beijing is thought to cost about 900 pounds ($1,100) per person if the flight is full, potentially less than a scheduled service.

But there are many other challenges around arranging such flights, such as securing agreement from authorities at each end, transferring students to campuses and supporting them through any quarantine period.

British universities are believed to be thinking about clubbing together in regional groups to offer such a service and spread any risks.

“We’re encouraging institutions to talk to each other in their local areas and regions to work out if it’s possible to do this collectively,” Arrowsmith said.

Among the areas with universities thought to be looking at the possibility of charter flights are southwest England and South Wales, and northwest England and the Midlands.

Other countries that have also been looking at the prospect of charter flights include Australia, where universities in at least two states have been looking to try out their use for returning students.

However, the politics of using charter flights in Australia has been complicated until now by the fact that the country has tighter travel restrictions, and approval from the federal government would be needed before they can take place.

This has led to concerns that Britain could be stealing a march on competitor nations by exploring the use of charter flights to bring in new entrants.

However, Australia -- which is halfway through its academic year -- was expected to announce new visa arrangements this week. The plans were expected to include fee waivers for students forced to extend their stay in Australia because of the pandemic, and to clarify whether online classes count toward the period of study required to qualify for postcourse work rights.

“After three and a half months of advocacy, education providers are frustrated at delays but hopeful that Australia will be in a more competitive position soon,” said Phil Honeywood, chief executive of the International Education Association of Australia.

Arrowsmith said that while the U.K. was aware of “what competitors are doing,” its “main focus” was on supporting potential students.

“We need to do what we can to provide them with clarity about what to expect, and ensure they understand that our universities are open and will be ready to welcome them in the autumn,” he said.

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