With conferences cancelled and revenues hit because of a lack of rent from student accommodation, Britain's universities are reeling from the global coronavirus pandemic. Schools have already lost millions of pounds thanks to enforced closures under lockdown, and things could get worse still.
British universities are under very severe strain from the crisis, Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) think tank admitted. The national lockdown that forced universities to shut in late March has cost £790 million (US$990 million), according to representative body Universities UK (UKK).
And the next academic year could be even worse if international students, who pay higher tuition fees, stay away or are hit by movement restrictions. The potential impact is extreme, said UKK, which has asked the government for £2 billion in aid.
Without it, they warned that some institutions risked having to cut back sharply or risk closing together.
Britain is the second-most popular university destination for foreign students after the United States. In 2018-2019, one in five pupils in the country came from overseas. Of a total of 485,645 overseas students, nearly 343,000 came from outside the European Union. Of those, 120,385 came from China.
International students are a financial lifeline for British universities, often paying twice as much as the £9,250 a year in tuition fees for EU nationals and their British counterparts. Longer courses such as medicine attract even higher fees.
Vivienne Stern, director of UKK's international branch, said 17% of universities' overall revenues - the equivalent of about £6 billion - came from foreign students.
In some universities the proportion of total income which comes from international student fees is higher than that. But for most universities it's a significant source of income, she added.
A report by the consultancy firm London Economics in April for the University and College Union estimated that all foreign students (EU and non-EU) were 47 per cent less likely to enroll in their first year in the UK in 2020-2021 compared to 2018-2019.
For British students, the figure was 16 per cent. That could threaten as many as 30,000 direct jobs and more than 32,000 in the local economy which depend on the university sector.
Oxford University, which is on the front line of human vaccine trials, has announced a 12-month hiring freeze. The University of Manchester, one of the largest in the country, has also put a brake on hiring and reduced the salaries of its managers by 20%.