travel to the UK
Chinese students make up the largest cohort of international students in the UK. Source: Wang Zhao/AFP

China has been a leading source of international students in the UK, and UK universities are stepping up efforts to ensure students can travel to the UK and return in time for classes. According to The Sunday Times, a rising number of UK universities — including Russell Group institutions — are chartering flights for Chinese students next month. This comes amid fears that global travel restrictions could cost hundreds of millions of pounds in overseas fees.

Over 50 UK universities, including Imperial College London, the University of Bristol and the University of Exeter, have already chartered four flights to bring in 1,200 Chinese students in time to start their degrees next month. Income from international students is estimated to be worth over a billion pounds. 

Airport transfers between Heathrow and UK campuses are reportedly being organised, as well as accommodation and food supplies for the students who, under current restrictions, will need to isolate on campus for 10 days on arrival.

travel to the UK

Top UK universities have chartered four flights to help Chinese students travel to the UK. Source: Wang Zhao/AFP

Travel to the UK hampered by availability of flights

Universities UK international director Vivienne Stern told The Sunday Times that flight availability is proving “a big issue” for universities with a high proportion of overseas students, “especially from mainland China.” “Universities are also going to have to deal with students who can’t come to the UK for the start of their course. They are making provision for online learning and multiple start dates,” she was quoted saying.

Some 220,000 Chinese students are studying in the UK. Across the Russell Group, one in every 10 students is Chinese, and they provide nearly a fifth of all tuition fee income, worth an estimated £1.3 billion every year, said the report. International students in the UK pay nearly four times the fees paid by their British counterparts. 

International education organisation Into HE — which is working with the universities to hire the flights to help students travel to the UK — said more charter flights are being arranged to meet demand. These will leave from Hong Kong. Currently, all direct flights from the UK to mainland China have been suspended. Students from mainland China, however, can travel to Hong Kong, which is on the UK’s green list, and fly to London from there.

India is the second biggest supplier of international students to the UK. Quoting British university sources, the report said that institutions had also suggested that the government might provide more hotel accommodation at airports for students from red-list countries to stay in during their 10-day quarantine period. India is now listed as an amber country, and was previously on the UK’s red list for travel due to its high incidence of the Delta variant.

Data from Universities UK show that Chinese students make up the largest cohort of international students in the UK, with 139,130 studying in the UK in 2019-20. China is followed by 52,545 students from India and 19,940 from the US. Italian and French students are the two largest cohorts from the EU with 13,605 and 13,430 students respectively studying in the UK in 2019-20.