Coronavirus: What can the college sector do?

Colleges must stand by their Chinese partners and support international students any way they can, writes Emma Meredith

Emma Meredith

Coronavirus: What can colleges in the UK do?

For the past three weeks, coronavirus has made headline news every day everywhere. It feels almost insensitive to write about how it might affect UK colleges when in mainland China coronavirus has claimed over 900 lives (including the doctor who is said to have warned about the virus) with a further 40,000 people infected.

By the time you read this, the figures will probably have increased again. Global travel is disrupted, China is preparing to pump billions into its economy to keep it moving and coronavirus cases have been detected in at least 25 other countries.

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For colleges that have partnerships in China and Chinese students within their communities, coronavirus and its likely short- to medium-term impact cannot be ignored. China is and has been – by a long stretch – the biggest source country for international students who choose a UK education. In FE we recruit Chinese students to our campuses, go to China to deliver vocational and professional training, and work with Chinese colleges, education authorities and agents on a whole range of projects. 

How colleges should react to coronavirus

I’ve visited China over 20 times in the course of my career in international education, which coincidentally began not long before the 2003 Sars outbreak. The coronavirus outbreak represents another challenging time for China, both domestically and internationally. Putting myself in the shoes of the Chinese education partners and Chinese applicants I’ve met over the years, I think there are three constructive steps colleges can take to manage what may be an uncertain period ahead.

Follow official UK government advice
The UK government has published a coronavirus guidance page, which is updated daily with the latest medical information, travel advice and risk level. Colleges should keep checking this page, perhaps designating a member of staff to disseminate information to the different college departments that it may be relevant to. Even if you have no direct activity in China, for your staff and students it’s important to keep an eye on the guidance for UK public health.

Exercise sensitivity and flexibility in your interactions with China.
On a practical level, it’s likely that travel to and from China and your planned activities there for the next short while could be disrupted. Can you reschedule, deliver online, defer student places or offer a refund? It’s hard to avoid thinking ahead to how long the coronavirus outbreak will last, whether into summer schools or the start of the next academic session, and what the financial impact may be if your activity cannot go ahead as planned. Whilst the timescales remain unsure, you can’t really do anything other than mitigate the risks as best you can. Colleges work very hard to establish partnerships in China, and this is the time to stand by our Chinese partners to stay in there for the long-term.

On a more personal note, your students with connections to China and other parts of Asia may be worried about family, friends, and what’s happening back home. Every student is an individual, wherever they are from, and may or may not show that they need a bit of extra support or understanding. Equally, colleges are at the heart of our communities and these communities extend beyond the college gates. Until coronavirus disappears from our headlines, as a sector we also need to challenge any discrimination or ignorance around coronavirus which is levelled at particular people or groups in our communities. 

Keep an eye on updates
The final step is to keep reading coronavirus updates from AoC, the Home Office, the British Council and other sector associations such as UKCISA (UK Council for International Student Affairs). We will look to bring you the latest information about what’s happening that impacts on education, for example on student visas issues or deferred IELTS tests. The scale and long-term importance of UK education partnerships in China, and more broadly within Asia, should not be underestimated.

Emma Meredith is international director at the Association of Colleges

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