Most New Zealand universities opt for compulsory vaccination

Mandates the least worst option, as vice-chancellors await ‘the inevitable court cases’

十二月 12, 2021
Covid vaccine
Source: iStock

New Zealand’s universities are embracing vaccine mandates, despite questions over their legality, as consultations reveal widespread support for compulsory immunisation – and vice-chancellors conclude that they have little choice.

Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) has become the latest institution to require full vaccination as a condition of entry on to campus or participation in face-to-face activities. The mandate applies to staff, students, contractors and visitors from 31 January, with exemptions considered on medical grounds and a promise to review the rules regularly.

AucklandMasseyOtago and Waikato universities have unveiled similar rules, although dates and details differ. Lincoln University is seeking feedback on a proposal to implement a similar regime from 14 February.

The University of Canterbury is keeping its options open and currently requires people to be vaccinated if they live in affiliated halls of residence or attend university events not directly related to learning or teaching. Auckland University of Technology will require vaccination for staff, contractors, visitors and residents of student accommodation.

Most of the eight universities have completed risk assessments and consulted staff, students, unions and other stakeholders about vaccination requirements. VUW said its survey had revealed widespread support for a vaccine mandate, with about 90 per cent of staff and 85 per cent of students saying they would be more comfortable on campus if most people were immunised.

Vice-chancellor Grant Guilford said the survey had found that 40 per cent of university community members belonged to groups considered particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 or had family members in those groups. “We know that this is the right response…while Covid-19 exists in the community,” he said.

Vaccination has been a difficult issue for New Zealand’s universities, after the government prescribed mandates for workers in schools but not tertiary education institutions.

Potential legal impediments to compulsory vaccination include a possible conflict with New Zealand’s Human Rights Act, if mandates are found to discriminate against people deemed disabled because they lack Covid antibodies. Compulsory arrangements could also run foul of privacy legislation and equitable access principles.

On the other hand, failure to enforce vaccination could put universities in breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act and a code of practice for pastoral care of domestic students. The code was introduced after a teenage student’s death went unnoticed for weeks in a hall of residence in 2019.

Professor Guilford said the legal inconsistencies may remain unresolved “until the inevitable court cases come up, and these things are tested”. But he said the decision at VUW had ultimately been simple. “I might find that I’m in court over human rights issues, but I also could find myself in court over health and safety and pastoral care rules.

“With the latter, there would be a higher risk that the action against the university and myself [was] about the loss of someone’s life or [damage to] health or family from the Covid epidemic. I’d much rather be defending my decisions around human rights breaches versus health and safety breaches.”

He added that the university had found the human rights arguments unconvincing. “With online education, we’re not denying anyone an education – [just] access to our premises.”



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