Lingering border restrictions ‘risk New Zealand’s Covid advantage’

At least start processing visas, foreign students beg, as treasury defers hopes of students’ return

October 5, 2020
Sculpture of Gollum from the movie The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbits display in Wellington international Airport in Wellington, New Zealand
Source: iStock

New Zealand’s treasury has warned that international students may not be allowed back into the country before the second half of next year, prolonging the fiscal pain for universities and elevating border restrictions as an issue in this month’s election.

New Zealand’s pre-election fiscal update assumes that border restrictions will not be lifted until January 2022, nine months after the timeline proposed in the May budget, although education flows may start recovering from mid-2021 subject to “safe travel arrangements being agreed”.

The opposition National Party has urged speedier action, citing “significant economic gains…if we move fast”. The nation “could attract students who would normally go to other countries to study, or want a full experience of campus life”, National’s international education policy says.

Foreign students contribute NZ$5.1 billion (£2.7 billion) a year to the national economy and support about 50,000 jobs, the policy says. Incoming students should be quarantined at universities’ expense in specially certified and audited facilities.

“We should be doing everything we can to safely bring economic activity back” and “international students are a very low risk opportunity to do that”, the policy says, adding that new international students would be banned from working for a year to prevent them “competing with Kiwis for jobs in a time of rising unemployment”.

The policy contrasts with the approach of the governing Labour party, which has pursued a conservative border policy despite presiding over the lowest Covid-19 caseload of any developed country, excluding microstates such as Monaco and Liechtenstein.

While New Zealand’s success in suppressing the virus is a potential drawcard for foreign students, commentators have warned that the country risks losing enrolments to more welcoming competitors. The UK now allows international students to submit visa applications six months before their studies start, up from three months previously.

China’s Hainan Airlines flew 74 students to the UK on 21 September, Chinese media have reported, in the first instalment of some 20,000 enrolled university students to be ferried to Manchester and Bristol by mid-November. And while Australia’s plans to charter flights for international students have faltered so far, they could receive a boost from four states’ recent agreement to increase caps on international arrivals.

New Zealand, by contrast, has suspended processing visa applications from would-be foreign students. Dozens of Iranian doctoral candidates say that they are at risk of losing scholarships with New Zealand universities after waiting almost a year on their applications, and some are considering alternative destinations.

“I turned down my PhD offer from another country to do my research studies at one of the prestigious universities in NZ,” one tweeted. “Most of our visa applications go way back before the Covid-19 outbreak,” another complained. “Processing student visas doesn’t make NZ vulnerable to the spread of Covid,” insisted a third.

The Tertiary Education Union would not be drawn on border closures, describing the issue as “political dynamite”. But national president Michael Gilchrist said that Labour had abandoned its 2017 election promise to ensure that tertiary institutions were not reliant on revenue from international students to make ends meet.

Dr Gilchrist said there was a suggestion that this was “excusable” given the Covid crisis. “In fact, it’s more important than ever to have a policy of this kind. The funding for domestic students has always been inadequate and that’s forced tertiary institutions to compete for international students.”

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