Universities Should Pay to Bring International Students to Campus During the Coronavirus Pandemic

How can newly-matriculated international students secure the funds necessary to cover would-be additional costs during the COVID-19 pandemic?”

By S N McGannon

July 9, 2020

In my recent article (which you can read here) I suggest measures governments can implement to open up their countries to newly matriculated international students during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the measures I suggest would require such students to have access to significant monetary funds at short notice. If the international students themselves had to shoulder the burden of such costs — on top of the exorbitant fees already demanded of them as international students — then the requirements I’ve outlined would be prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of them. However, I think there is a simple and obvious solution to this would-be problem, and that is what I’m going to talk about today.

The question: how can international students secure the funds necessary to cover the costs for any additional measures governments would implement to ensure those students could reach their universities during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The answer: universities ought to cover all such costs. 

Actually (and this is my real answer), governments ought to cover all costs for studies — including tuition — regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic — but that’s a topic for another time. For now, I’ll assume governments don’t have any interest in paying extra fees to bring international students to their country and, this being the case, I will stick by arguing that universities themselves ought to cover all such costs — qualification to follow.

First, to elaborate on what it is universities should cover the cost of: (1) the exit flight fund, (2) quarantine accommodations, (3) fulfilling the requirement to undergo video conference identification — including any incurred by travel, hardware, or software required, and (4) fulfilling the requirement to secure any COVID-19 tests whether before or after arrival or both— including any incurred by travel or time off work.

The costs of fulfilling the requirements I’ve previously outlined could vary widely depending on each student’s circumstance. Some students might have to travel to secure a COVID-19 test, some might require special assistance in quarantine accommodations, etc., and all would have to have exit funds. On a rough estimate, such costs could easily run $5,000 USD +.1 Despite this high figure, many universities have the ideal resource with which to cover these costs: tuition funds! In the U.S., the average tuition for international students is $26,290.2 In Canada it’s ~ $22,500 USD.3 In Australia it’s ~ $22,170 USD.4 In the U.K. it’s $14,130 USD.5 Tuition fees in this range are in great excess of the costs in question, and still leaving room for generous university profits — and international students studying at these four destinations alone constituted nearly half of the world’s entire international student population in 2017.6

Okay, but what if tuition doesn’t cover the costs? 

Then such universities ought to draw from reserve funds and redirect monetary resources. I recognize that some countries have universities which — even for international students — average tuition fees low enough (or absent) that such a proposal would be truly untenable. Such universities ought to draw on every reserve fund available to them to cover the costs in question and, where possible, redirect monetary resources away from existing projects. This includes, for example, money set aside for any and all new academically unnecessary projects (such as infrastructure, sports equipment, etc.). 

While such universities might incur profit losses as a result for that particular semester (or year), they still have 1-3 years to gather full tuition from each student in question. This means such universities will have a choice between no profit at all (i.e. the student won’t remote study and the university makes $0.00) and some profit (i.e. the student begins their studies with the university losing money that semester or year, but the university breaks even after year 2 and makes the usual profit on years 3 and 4).7 In the case where tuition is entirely free, the money should be drawn entirely from reserve and redirected funds.

But for the universities whose tuition fees could cover such costs, how do you get them to pay?

Mandate them. When a government passes and implements measures to open up to newly matriculated international students, it should simultaneously institute a mandate on universities to cover all costs brought about by such new measures. I also note that a hybrid approach — mandating universities to pay some of the would-be additional costs — is better than no mandate at all. This approach also addresses the issue of universities with lower-end tuition fees.

But what if a government can’t mandate universities in this way? 

Perhaps some governments can’t mandate every university in their country in this way (whether truly constitutionally incapable or merely politically unswayable). Nevertheless, some governments — such as the U.S. government — can pressure state governments to mandate their public universities to cover these costs (and should thus do so). — And what about private universities? Suppose public universities are mandated to cover the costs in question while private universities are not. Then, public universities will operate at optimal (or at least anticipated) enrollment while private universities will suffer from under-enrollment. This will have the effect of boosting the overall quality of public institutions in comparison with their private counterparts (think campus life, community sense, future alumni network and benefits gained therefrom — including donations, future discoveries made by alumni, awards won by alumni, citations on alumni papers, etc.). Meanwhile, top international student talent will likely be lured away from inaccessible private institutions to top public institutions. This will have the effect of diminishing the quality of students at private institutions — which will further compound the aforementioned problem private institutions will face of fewer students in general. Ideally, the prospect of this scenario will pressure private universities (who have more tuition money to redirect anyway) to voluntarily cover the costs in question. If they simply will not do so, then their would-be students will either have to secure the funds themselves (and I speculate there’s a better chance that they will be able to secure such funds than their public university counterparts in virtue of the fact they’ve had the resources to pay international student prices for private institutions) or demand a refund on tuition and enroll at another more ethically conscious university.

If there are governments which somehow can’t mandate any of their universities at all, then the universities in such countries should be nationally and internationally pressured to cover such costs. This will happen in a similar way as the scenario where public universities are mandated to cover costs while private universities are not: top talent will be drawn away, the universities in such countries will look less appealing, etc. (as with what’s currently happening to the U.S., though for different reasons). In such a case, the hope will be that the universities will relent and agree to cover the costs. 

A final thought — 

While universities ought to cover any and all such costs brought on by any additional measures governments would implement to ensure international students could reach their universities during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s vital that — even in the case of a government mandate on universities to cover such costs — students may optionally cover such costs themselves. This is vital because it will ensure that as many students as possible reach their universities (otherwise, a student who would be able to cover the costs themselves might face a situation where only universities may pay but refuse to do so).

Sources and clarifications:

(1.) This is my very rough estimate. For all prices, I took the pricier estimate because what we want to know is what the maximum cost could be. I estimated international plane ticket costs for September by searching flights between LA and Beijing and LA and Paris. Most flights I saw were running between $650 USD and $1,500 USD (I took this higher number). Then, I assumed 14 nights at a hotel with a rate of $100 USD per night ( = $1,400 USD). This number is an educated guess based on my own personal experience with hotel prices — this seems a good higher-average (hostels — even single room — are usually below $60 USD, in my experience). I set the food budget at $40 USD per day — to be safe: roughly twice of the average adult in 2012 according to Gallup (https://news.gallup.com/poll/156416/americans-spend-151-week-food-high-income-180.aspx). So that’s another $560 USD. As for COVID-19 tests, it’s tricky to get an average. Many sources report that they are free many countries, but the occasional $7,000 USD test does pop up (https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/08/coronavirus-test-costs-304058). After reading through articles about pricing for some time, I came to find that stories such as this (https://khn.org/news/bill-of-the-month-covid19-tests-are-free-except-when-theyre-not/) appear to be not-so-unusual (in the U.S.). This person ended up have to pay ~ $540 USD (obscene, by the way). I decided to use this number as the average, and tripled this for each of the three tests suggested in my outline (thus: $1,620 USD). So, 1500 + 1400 + 560 + 1620 = ~ 5000. When I thought about additional costs like transportation for COVID-19 tests (which could be hundreds of dollars more), etc., I decided to call it $5,000 USD +. This number is obviously quite rough, and the real figure could, in some cases, be much lower (even under $1,000 USD) or much higher ($10,000 USD +). What’s clear, though, is that such prices are below (often well below) the average international tuition in many countries.

(2.) https://www.studyinternational.com/news/charted-how-international-student-fees-at-us-universities-are-going-up-up-up/

(3.) https://www.topuniversities.com/student-info/student-finance/how-much-does-it-cost-study-canada

(4.) https://www.topuniversities.com/student-info/student-finance/how-much-does-it-cost-study-australia

(5.) https://www.topuniversities.com/student-info/student-finance/how-much-does-it-cost-study-uk

(6.) https://www.studyinternational.com/news/country-home-largest-international-student-population/

(7.) There is, of course, the ignoble option: universities force students to work remotely while charging the full tuition — more on this (as it in fact unfolds) another time.

Link to this story: https://snmcgannon.com/2020/07/09/universities-should-pay-to-bring-international-students-to-campus-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic/

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