Many universities in the United Kingdom are chartering flights to help bring thousands of Chinese students to study in the country despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
An education expert said that as China is the UK's largest source of international students, such arrangements could become "normal procedure" in coming years.
The pandemic has caused widespread disruption to international travel, with only a limited number of flights operating between the two countries.
However, this has not stopped efforts being made by UK higher education institutions to overcome such restrictions and arrange flights to bring in students from China－attempts mainly aimed at buoying tuition revenue.
Last month, a flight chartered by Queen's University Belfast, carrying 369 students from China on one-way tickets costing £616($795), landed in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. The university was one of the first in the UK to arrange a direct charter flight and airport transfers to bring students directly to its campus.
Just a few days later, 74 students boarded a Hainan Airlines charter flight from Chongqing to Manchester, northern England, to resume their overseas education.
It was the first such flight operated by a Chinese airline to take students from the country back to schools overseas. During the next two months, the airline is expected to fly some 20,000 Chinese students from across the country out of Chongqing to Manchester or Bristol, in western England.
Other universities in England and Wales have also been looking to use charter flights for students from China, according to WalesOnline. These schools include Swansea University, Cardiff University, Cardiff Metropolitan University, the University of South Wales, the University of the West of England, the University of Exeter and the University of Plymouth.
Steve Spriggs, managing director at William Clarence Education, an education placement, tuition and consultancy service based in London, said, "I think this will become more commonplace as we go into next year, and may even become a normal procedure in future years."
With the higher education market set to become increasingly competitive, and as UK institutions compete with those from Canada, the United States and Australia for top talent in China, Spriggs said he feels this could become a new trend.
He added, "Making it as easy as possible to access university makes sense, and if it means chartering a flight to China and back, then, commercially, that also makes sense."
Julian Fisher, senior partner at the consultancy Venture Education in Beijing, said,"When the pandemic hit the UK, universities were relatively slow to react, but I think they have made a considerable effort since then to support their international students.
According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 485,645 international students were educated in the UK in 2018-19. A total of 342,620 were from outside the European Union, with 35 percent of higher education students coming from China－a rise of 53 percent on 2011-12.
Compared with students from the UK, their overseas counterparts face higher tuition bills. According to a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute in 2018, Chinese students comprised the largest group of first-year non-EU students at UK higher educational institutions in the 2015-16 academic year.
Experts said UK universities are also arranging charter flights for financial reasons to bring students to the country.
Spriggs said: "As a percentage of revenue, Chinese students represent a huge chunk of income for universities. It makes sense for them to protect that as much as possible.
"The risk of not doing so means the students go elsewhere and a university cannot make up that revenue loss. It is also about branding, being the most accessible, the most approachable and being 'open for business' to the Chinese market."
Despite the pandemic, UK universities are recruiting record numbers of international students. According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the number of undergraduate students accepted from outside the EU has risen by 9 percent to a record 44,300.
This marked a significant change from earlier this year, when fears surfaced that international students might postpone or cancel their studies in the UK this autumn due to fears about the outbreak.
According to observers, while Chinese families are concerned about safety, they are also pragmatic, as they see the benefits of proceeding with long-term plans.
Chen Qianyu, from Chengdu, Sichuan province, is one of the many Chinese students determined to push ahead with their studies in the UK to realize their dreams.
The 20-year-old, who was on the charter flight from Chongqing to Manchester, will read actuarial mathematics as a junior year student at the University of Liverpool in northwest England. The program allowed her to complete her first two years of studies in China.
Chen said that although all her classes have been switched to remote learning this semester, she still thinks it would be better to be on campus.
"This is the first time I have studied in the UK. Due to the time difference between the two countries, I think that being in the same time zone as the lecturers gives me a better online experience. If I encounter any difficulties during the lessons, I can email the tutor right away, which I think is more efficient than being at home in China," she said.
Chen also feels comfortable being in the UK during the outbreak, because some friends she met in China are on the same course, which she said makes her feel less lonely.
Despite the rising number of COVID-19 cases at UK universities in recent weeks, she said she is not particularly concerned about the situation.
"The pandemic won't recede in the short term and we will have to learn to live with it for a while. The key to staying safe is to take preventive measures such as wearing face masks, washing hands frequently and abiding by local regulations," she added.
Wang Wenxin, from Qingdao, Shandong province, who is pursuing a doctorate at the University of Leeds in northern England, and was on the same flight to the UK as Chen, said her family were concerned about her safety overseas during the new term. However, after assessing the situation, she decided to go ahead with her studies.
"The pandemic has affected our way of learning and travel arrangements, but most Chinese students are sticking to their plans. I'm in the first semester of studying for a philosophy doctorate, and hope I can quickly get into my studies and take part in various projects as soon as possible," Wang said.
She added that taking a charter flight to the UK was a "relief" because it minimized the risk during the journey. The one-way ticket cost over 13,000 yuan, much more than regular fares, which range between 3,000 yuan and 7,000 yuan.
However, Wang said this was acceptable, "because the flight was great", and with many seats being empty, social distancing could be enforced.
UK universities are not alone in making sure Chinese students arrive safely in the country－independent schools are also lending a helping hand.
Caroline Nixon, international director of the Boarding Schools' Association in the UK, confirmed that last month the organization placed 70 Chinese students, who were originally unable to get flights, on two scheduled services from Qingdao to Heathrow Airport in London.
"China is the biggest source country for UK independent schools, but the reason we focused on getting Chinese students back was that there were a limited number of flights in and out," she said.
"We were helped in finding two flights with spare seats by a Chinese travel agent based in the UK. Fares were therefore comparable with what parents would expect to pay."
Nixon added that as the feedback received had been positive, the association may offer such services again.