Northern Ireland's two universities have said maintaining their international student base will be one of the major challenges for the future as they brace themselves for a loss of up to £100m as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
It is believed foreign students are likely to be nervous about coming to the UK amid the crisis.
If Queen's University Belfast (QUB) and Ulster University (UU) cannot open as normal for the 2020 intake, another potential issue is that students may decide to defer their places until 2021 and take a gap year now instead.
Both local seats of higher learning have insisted that they will be able to sustain their standards and intake for the forthcoming year.
A QUB spokeswoman said the university is projecting a drop in total annual revenue for the forthcoming year "in excess of £30m".
Meanwhile, a spokesman for UU said the challenges presented by Covid-19 are anticipated to result in "a deficit of between £25m and £64m over the next three years".
The universities have been forced to furlough staff, but in both cases it is a fraction of their overall workforce.
Stephen Farry, former Minister for Employment and Learning, said retaining foreign students and avoiding deferrals will be real challenges for our universities.
"The biggest threat comes from a significant drop in the numbers of international students," Mr Farry, now North Down MP, said.
"More domestic students may seek to defer their higher education until the future landscape is clearer.
"For us in Northern Ireland, it has always been the case that more local students have wanted to study locally than places available.
"I suspect that demand for NI places may become more acute given uncertainty over travel and other uncertainties."
QUB said it "is proud to be an international institution with over 3,000 overseas students".
It said "a large number of international students have remained with us throughout the pandemic", adding that "additional support services are being provided to ensure their safety and wellbeing in the current circumstances".
The statement said: "The pandemic presents a unique challenge to the sector and contingency measures are being developed to ensure that the university continues to provide a world-class education in a safe environment for all students for the forthcoming academic year."
It added: There is still considerable uncertainty regarding the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on many areas for all universities, including international student enrolments. Queen's University is projecting a drop in total annual revenue for the forthcoming academic year in excess of £30m."
UU said it was "making preparations for the 20/21 academic year to respond to the challenges and uncertainty arising from this pandemic, and in line with Government directives and guidance, as it evolves".
It added: "The challenges presented by the current Covid-19 pandemic are anticipated to result in a deficit of between £25-64m over the next three years."
UU said "in recent years we have welcomed increasing numbers of international students to Ulster".
The statement added: "Whilst we acknowledge the potential impact of Covid-19 on student mobility we continue to make plans for the incoming academic year including for our new and returning international students."
There are concerns universities may not be in a position to accept mass deferrals.
Even in non-coronavirus years it is not always possible, as highly competitive courses do not want to tie up too many places for the subsequent cohort.
It means that deferring students may be told they must reapply and take their chances against next year's applicants.
National Union of Students Northern Ireland president Robert Murtagh said the potential drop in foreign student numbers highlights a bigger financial problem.
"The loss of income from the inevitable loss of international students exposes the real problem, which is the shortfall in public funding," he said.
"Since the start of the financial crisis we've seen an inflationary decrease of 27% in public funding going into universities in Northern Ireland.
"What the universities have done in order to close that gap is to try and attract international students, particularly from south east Asia, and this crisis has shown the precariousness of trying to rely on international students as some form of cash cow in order to close that public funding gap.
"The money should be coming from the public purse."
The situation has given an unintended boost to the Open University (OU), which has decades of experience in online learning.
An OU spokeswoman said over 3,900 students were enrolled in Northern Ireland in 2018/19.
She said there had been "huge interest in online learning on our free learning platform, OpenLearn" over the past two months.
"Visitors to that site have increased from around 40,000 users per day to over 160,000 across the UK and we have seen similar trends in Northern Ireland," she said.
"This demonstrates that people are using this as an opportunity to invest in their skills.
"As we emerge out of this initial crisis and into recovery, skills and education are going to be even more important to enable people to find sustainable and rewarding employment.
"We encourage anyone who is interested in investing in their skills to get in touch with us and we can help put them on the right study pathway."