Senior Queen’s officials expressed concerns at the impact of Covid-19 on recruitment income with documentation revealing just eight international students having an economic value of £1 million to the university.
nternal documentation seen by The Detail highlights how university officials acknowledged just before Christmas the “important role” played by the university in chartering international flights in September and October as these helped to retain fee income from international students.
But QUB declined to say whether its perception of international students as having a high economic value played any role in its chartering of three flights from China during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Documents revealed concerns GB-based universities could poach students from QUB due to the lack of face-to-face teaching.
The latest QUB chartered flight from Beijing took place on January 10, 2021 and carried around 150 students to Northern Ireland during the lockdown. Students, however, were legally allowed to travel to the UK.
Tickets cost the students £839 each but QUB did not reveal how much this flight cost the university – citing commercial sensitivity.
The documentation showed that QUB officials were also considering chartering a further January flight, from New Delhi, India.
QUB told The Detail the safety and wellbeing of staff and students was its “first priority”.
A spokesperson said: “The university chose to charter flights for international students in recognition of the difficulty of travelling and limited availability of flights.”
This allowed students to travel directly to Belfast rather than transiting through another hub before going directly to campus to self-isolate, they explained.
QUB said it “liaised with all relevant authorities and complied with all Civil Aviation Authority regulations, as well as applying more stringent safety measures than were required by the regulations in place at the time”.
A spokesperson for the Department for the Economy (DfE) said: “QUB arranged to use charter flights to bring students from China direct to Belfast International Airport to avoid transit through London.
“All students were legally entitled to enter the UK and were advised of all the relevant health guidance and measures before arriving in Northern Ireland.”
A spokesperson for the university added: “Relevant government departments have been kept informed of the university’s approach throughout.”
In January, it was reported that Stormont’s Economy Committee sought guidance from the Department of Health (DoH) on whether the most recent Chinese flight breached any Covid-19 regulations.
The DoH told The Detail it is not aware of any correspondence from the Economy Committee on the matter.
QUB said it could not make a comparison between the economic impact of its Northern Irish students and its international ones.
However, in terms of fees to the university, a Northern Irish undergraduate student pays £4,530 per year – while an international undergraduate student pays between £17,400 and £32,200, though QUB said it had to be acknowledged that Northern Irish students also attract government grants.
A QUB spokesperson added: “The bulk of tuition fees are used to cover the costs of delivering a world-class education in a research intensive environment. Any surplus is reinvested to further augment the student experience.”
QUB documentation dated April 2020 stated that Northern Ireland’s universities operate with a cap on student numbers, resulting in around 60 university places per 100 applicants, while English universities are not capped in terms of enrolment.
The documentation highlights QUB viewed universities in Great Britain as being in a competitive position to offer Northern Irish students places to “mitigate losses from international students” due to Covid-19. This would “impact negatively on the economy and the universities in Northern Ireland for years to come”.
Later documentation from December 2020 shows, however, that there were over 3,900 new first-year undergraduate students from either Northern Ireland or the EU at the university at the end of October 2020 – almost 650 students ahead of the university’s initial target.
The number from the European Union, mostly consisting of students from the Republic of Ireland, grew by 33% (to 334).
The number of new first-year undergraduates from Great Britain also rose by 36.5% (to 179) from the previous year. They are charged £9,250 per year, while students from the European Union pay £4,530 – the same as Northern Ireland students.
Documentation on how many new first-year QUB undergraduate students came from Asia this academic year has not been released.
The documentation references concerns about QUB’s capacity to attract international students. It attributes this as being, in part, due to the university not being able to guarantee face-to-face teaching because of Covid-19 restrictions.
The university has said it “remains committed” to face-to-face teaching “when it is able to do so safely and within the context of existing public health restrictions”.
“The university has taken decisions throughout the pandemic in the best interests of students including, for example, the decision to pause accommodation contracts when public health restrictions meant that many students were asked to study from home,” said a spokesperson.
“The university remains confident in the safety measures that it has in place across the campus to ensure that it is a safe place to live, work and study for all members of the QUB community.”
The Belfast Telegraph has approached Queen’s for comment.