British universities face long shutdown of Chinese campuses as virus spreads
British universities are braced for a long shutdown of their Chinese campuses after Beijing said it would extend the closure of China’s higher education sector into March to combat the spread of coronavirus.
Nottingham, Birmingham City and Leeds universities were among the many UK higher education providers told they must delay the return of academics and students until 2 March, after they were initially told to keep their Chinese offshoots closed until 24 February.
The decision to extend the shutdown of higher education throughout China until next month is expected to be a clear signal to other parts of the country’s education system to prolong the winter break, which started in December and includes the lunar new year, until the virus is under control.
Beijing has allowed local authorities to use their own judgment about when to open schools and locally controlled universities later this month, but the move to extend the closure of centrally funded and regulated universities, which includes foreign-owned campuses, is expected to persuade most local officials to follow Beijing’s lead.
More than 35,000 people in China and 24 other countries have contracted the virus, and hundreds have died. The Beijing authorities have effectively quarantined a string of cities stretching from Wuhan, where the outbreak started, to the east coast and asked anyone who suspects they have flu-like symptoms to seek medical attention.
Most major airlines have suspended flights to China, and governments in the region have blocked Chinese nationals from leaving the country. The US, Australia and Singapore have blocked all foreign visitors who have recently been to China. Some 30,000 Britons in mainland China have been advised to leave, although it is unclear whether they will be allowed to travel with their spouses. The last government-chartered repatriation flight out of Wuhan is due to depart on Sunday.
City streets and shopping malls in China have largely been deserted for the last two weeks, leading western retailers to shut their stores. Apple, which relies on China for about a fifth of its store sales, has closed its shops and offices until further notice. Starbucks closed almost half of its 4,300 outlets in China, leading to a dramatic fall in the price of coffee on international markets.
The upmarket fashion retailer Burberry said wealthy Chinese consumers were staying away from its Chinese shops and travel restrictions had curbed overseas shopping sprees, leading to a dramatic loss of business.
Cuts in factory production across the country’s industrial heartland have also pushed down the price of oil from almost $70 for a barrel of Brent crude a month ago to $54 last week.
In the last week, the car firm Fiat Chrysler has warned that it will need to shut one of its European factories unless the virus is brought under control and shipments of vital parts and electronic components are restarted from Chinese ports.
Nottingham University runs a campus for almost 8,000 students in the city of Ningbo, 125 miles south of Shanghai. A spokeswoman said: “Our overriding priority is for the health of our students, staff and community. However, our aim will be to ensure that none of our students are academically or economically disadvantaged. Along with other universities in China, [the campus] is observing all advice from the health authorities and has extended the lunar new year holiday. The new semester is now planned to start on 2 March.”
She said the university would be able to cope with a degree of disruption over the coming months. “The university has longstanding contingency arrangements to amend semester dates and provide additional learning resources and support through online methods.”
Birmingham City University has 1,000 Chinese students at its joint venture with Wuhan Textile University – the Birmingham Institute of Fashion and Creative Art. A spokesman said: “Wuhan Textile University was closed for the lunar new year, and its reopening will be a matter for our Chinese partners. We are in close communication with our partners and the UK government to understand the impact on our students.”
Liverpool University has a joint venture with Xi’an Jiaotong University, which has 32,000 students and is based north-east of Wuhan.
The university sector alone contributes about £22bn or 1.2% to the UK’s annual £2 trillion GDP and is considered one of the UK’s most successful export industries. Newcastle, Reading, Southampton and Heriot-Watt universities also have outposts in Malaysia, which announced its first person-to-person transmission of the virus on Friday.