Hong Kong (CNN)If it weren’t for the novel coronavirus outbreak, Xu Mingxi would have been in class at a prestigious New York university this week.
Instead, the 22-year-old has spent the past three weeks confined to his family’s apartment in Wuhan, the Chinese city at the center of the outbreak, which is currently on lockdown to prevent the virus spreading.
But even if Xu could leave home, the United States — where he’s studied for the past four-and-a-half years — won’t let him in.
Over 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) away in Beijing, Alex — who asked not to use her real name for fear of online retribution — is in a similar situation. She’s spent the past two weeks at home with her mom and grandpa, being delivered groceries by community leaders. She’s worried she won’t be able to fly to Sydney to study later this month and may have to delay her law degree by a semester.
As novel coronavirus spreads, over 60 countries have imposed travel restrictions on Chinese citizens, hoping to limit their exposure to the virus that has killed more than 1,600 people, almost all in mainland China, and infected over 68,000 worldwide. Both Australia and the US have put temporary bans on foreign nationals who visited China in the 14 days prior to their arrival.
That has locked Xu and Alex out of their studies — and they are by no means alone.
In 2017, an estimated 900,000 Chinese tertiary students studied abroad. Around half of those went to either the United States or Australia, contributing billions of dollars to their economies — money that those countries now stand to lose.
It is not clear how many of the 360,000 Chinese students studying in the US were outside the country when the US travel ban hit on January 31, shortly before many universities were due to resume. But when Australia imposed its restrictions at the start of February, authorities estimated that 56% of Chinese students — about 106,680 people — were still abroad. Term was due to begin in late February or early March.
“For Australia, it couldn’t have come at a worse time. It’s exactly the time of the year in which people are coming from China to Australia,” said Andrew Norton, a professor in the practice of higher education policy at the Australian National University. The virus outbreak coincided with the Lunar New Year — the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar, when many students go home to see their family.
At first, it was just a normal holiday period for Xu, catching up with friends in Wuhan and eating food. The coronavirus outbreak didn’t seem like a huge issue.
Xu wore a mask and avoided the area around the seafood market linked to the outbreak, which is only a few kilometers from his house.
Then on January 23, the night before he was set to fly back to New York, Wuhan authorities announced they were locking down the city. There was still time to leave, but Xu decided not to go — he thought he would be safer inside Wuhan, and that the lockdown wouldn’t last long.
On January 27, his graduate program in interactive telecommunications at New York University (NYU) restarted. On January 31, the US government announced it wouldn’t let any foreign nationals flying from mainland China into the country.
Xu was told he could take classes remotely, but to him it wasn’t worth paying $62,000 per year in course fees for distance learning. He decided to take a break this semester. That will delay his graduation by six months.
The University of Sydney, where Alex studies, is making allowances for Chinese students.
Those affected by coronavirus travel bans can study remotely, start their semester a few weeks late, or defer their degree. Alex will defer this semester if she hasn’t been able to fly back by mid-March.
She pays about $45,000 Australian dollars ($30,280) each year — more than local students, who are eligible for reduced fees.
When Australia imposed its travel ban on February 1, it was effective immediately. While the WHO has advised against such measures, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “Our medical advice is it’s in the interest of Australians to do so.”
At the time, there were 80 Chinese people in transit — including 47 students.
Australian Border Force commissioner Michael Outram told the ABC that 18 decided to go back to China, while the others were put into self-isolation for 14 days. “This was a very difficult situation for the students, of course, we recognize that,” Outram said. “They were caught between, you know, an epidemic in China and coming to Australia and having issues raised with their visas.”
David, a 24-year-old studying engineering at the University of Sydney, who has been in self-imposed quarantine at his home in southern Guangdong province for weeks, said the Australian government’s actions made him feel “completely neglected.”
“I’m a taxpayer, I do my part in society, I’ve donated blood,” said David, who asked not to use his real name for fear that his comments could hurt his chance of getting an Australian visa. “After all the things I’ve done, you still consider me not part of your society.”
The logistical problems created by the virus are not short-term issues.
Universities will need to work out how to accommodate the backlog of students like Xu and Alex who have been delayed, as well as students who would have taken those courses anyway — and some universities just won’t have capacity, Norton said.
If thousands of students are forced to forgo this semester, universities in Australia and the United States stand to lose billions of dollars.
In Australia, 23.3% of universities’ total revenue came from international students in 2017 — and Chinese students made up over 38% of all international enrollments in 2018. In total, international education contributed 37.6 billion Australian dollars ($25 billion) to the Australian economy in the 2018-2019 financial year.
In the US, Chinese students contributed $14.9 billion to the US economy in 2018, according to government data.
Norton, the professor of higher education policy at the Australian National University, believes that most Chinese students in