In Britain, the United States and Australia, the coronavirus could blow huge holes in the budgets of universities that have “become addicted to one source of income.”
LONDON — On Jiani Zhou’s university campus in southwestern England, the racism arrived before the coronavirus did.
One girl headed for the stairs as soon as Ms. Zhou stepped up to a dormitory elevator bank in late January. When two construction workers saw a poster of Asian candidates in the student union election, they muttered, “Vote corona.”
But now that the virus has firmly taken hold in Britain, outmuscling the low-key measures taken by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Chinese students are fretting for a different reason: “People here haven’t realized how serious this is,” Ms. Zhou said. “Over in China, there were a lot of control mechanisms in place, but not here yet.”
That wariness toward the way British universities have handled the outbreak could soon have huge financial implications. Universities in English-speaking countries, especially Britain, Australia and the United States, have grown increasingly dependent on tuition from Chinese students, a business model that the virus could dismantle.
With qualifying exams postponed, travel bans spreading and anger rising among Chinese students and parents at the West’s permissive attitude toward public health, enrollment could plummet in the coming years, experts said, potentially leaving countries with multibillion- dollar holes in their universities’ budgets.
Already, analysts are talking about the prospect of government bailouts of higher education if Chinese students stay home, starving universities of the often-exorbitant overseas tuition fees that keep their less-profitable departments afloat.
“In quite a short period of time, we have become sort of addicted to one source of income,” said Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese studies at King’s College London. “If the worst case happens and Chinese students don’t want to come here in September, it’s potentially a kind of seismic change.”
In Britain, some Chinese students are fuming that universities did not act more decisively to move classes online and scrap major events like spring balls. In interviews, they said they were weighing the health benefits of wearing a surgical mask with their fear of being racially abused or even attacked, as a student from Singapore was last month in London.
Now that China has seemingly corralled its outbreak, some students are even swallowing the cost of expensive plane tickets and rushing home.
In Australia, where the academic year began around the end of February, an entry ban on anyone who had recently been in China stranded tens of thousands of Chinese students at home. The outbreak has grown enough in Australia, though, that analysts fear the next travel ban will be imposed by the Chinese, with the government potentially asking students not to travel to virus-prone countries for schooling.
Taken together, those slights and miscalculations have dented the reputation of overseas universities in China, analysts said. American universities were already hurt by trade tensions between Washington and Beijing and new visa restrictions on Chinese graduates. And British universities, too, are dealing with uncertainty over European Union research money and student-exchange programs after Brexit.
University administrators are bracing for parents already wary of the risks of global travel in the age of the virus to decide it is no longer worth shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for an overseas degree.
“I think this is going to exacerbate the sense that has been growing for years that the U.K., and to a lesser extent the U.S., are not great destinations for international students, especially Chinese students,” said Craig Calhoun, a professor of social sciences at Arizona State University and a former director of the London School of Economics and Political Science. “Applications and acceptances could go down precipitously, and I think very few U.K. universities have planned for that.”
In Britain, universities began chasing after Chinese students amid declining government funding, combined with a move by Indian students to enroll in American schools instead. Last year, more than 120,000 Chinese students enrolled in Britain, with some major universities’ student bodies now a fifth Chinese.
Conservative estimates put their combined fees at about 1.5 billion pounds, about $1.75 billion. Many enroll in postgraduate business and finance programs that are the universities’ biggest moneymakers.
“If enrollment falls by a quarter, that’s a huge amount of money and, for some universities, the difference between bankruptcy and staying afloat,” Professor Brown said.
Almost 400,000 Chinese students were studying in American universities last year. Australia has become even more reliant on Chinese recruitment: With 200,000 Chinese students, it stood to lose about $4 billion, by some estimates, had the coronavirus-related travel ban kept them from attending the first term.
“In Australia and New Zealand, the approach has been to treat international students as cash cows, and as a result the shortcomings in their systems are really coming to the surface,” said Salvatore Babones, an associate professor at the University of Sydney and an adjunct scholar at the Center for Independent Studies. “We’re essentially just running an offshore university experience at the master’s level.”
China, desperate to fill universities hollowed out under the one-child policy, has lately improved the quality of its own higher education system, tempting some students to stay home. British university administrators now fear that those changes, combined with China’s success in battling the coronavirus, could make the case for an overseas education more difficult.
Zhexuan Lu, a second-year student in sports management at the University of Bath, said he was surprised to find the British government ignoring the virus when the spring term started in January.
Few countries have since charted such a different course from China than Britain, which initially hesitated to shut restaurants and pubs. China, by contrast, has reported reducing its new local cases to zero by heavily curtailing people’s movements.
As the president of the Bath Chinese Students and Scholars Association, Mr. Lu sent a letter to the university’s vice chancellor asking for more lectures and course notes to be made available online. But he said the university was reluctant to do more until there was a confirmed case of the virus on campus.
“Nobody worried about it except Chinese students, because Chinese students know what happened and what helped in our home country,” Mr. Lu said.
Nevertheless, Mr. Lu said that younger Chinese students applying to British universities would not be deterred by the way Britain responded to the coronavirus, saying the virus would pass.
Should it remain a threat for longer, though, Professor Babones said, there was a risk that China would reciprocate other countries’ travel bans by considering asking its students not to go abroad for their studies, fearing that they would bring the virus back from a country where it was more rampant.
“It’d be a big propaganda win,” he said. “You kept our students out? Now we’re pulling them out.”
Some British universities are considering offering preterm English courses online and allowing Chinese students to delay their enrollments until January next year. Some have also tried to diversify their international student body in recent years, though analysts warned that was unlikely to compensate for any financial losses from China.
While Britain’s departure from the European Union will pile pressure on its universities, the government has said it will extend the visas of international students as a way of persuading them to stay.
In some ways, British universities’ response to the virus reflects the muddled messages coming from the prime minister’s office, which has been reluctant to impose any mandates and slow to discourage large gatherings.
In one email that upset students at the University of Cambridge, administrators insisted that the business school would hold exams last week in rooms of up to 40 people, despite students’ fear of the crowds. The university said it and its colleges were “doing all in their power to prepare students and staff for unforeseeable circumstances.”
For Ms. Zhou, the postgraduate officer in the student union at the University of Bath, being in Britain during the time of the virus meant fielding worried phone calls from her mother.
It has also meant trying to adjust to the more relaxed views of others, like a man to whom she tried to sell a concert ticket after she decided the virus made it too dangerous to go.
“He was, like, ‘It’s just the media going crazy,’” Ms. Zhou said. “He encouraged me to go and have a fantastic time.”