New Zealand borders inch open to international students

Wellington to allow overseas learners back earlier than expected, but only a select few will qualify

October 12, 2020
New Zealand, parliament, government
Source: iStock
New Zealand parliament buildings

International students may be allowed back into New Zealand as early as next month, as Wellington eases its strict border controls.

But only a select few of the thousands of stranded students can expect admission any time soon, with priority going to postgraduates with visas valid for 2020 who need to be in the country to undertake the practical components of their research or coursework.

Announcing the new arrangements on 12 October, education minister Chris Hipkins said 250 students would qualify with the first likely to arrive in November but “the majority arriving in the new year”.

He described the “pragmatic” approach as a “step in the right direction” for the international education sector. “[It] allows us to carefully manage the demand on our quarantine facilities and the complex nature of bringing students back into the country,” he said.

“The government will review other possible border exceptions, as and when it is safe to do so.”

The announcement will be a welcome surprise to foreign postgraduates whose New Zealand studies have been interrupted by the pandemic. In a pre-election fiscal update released last month, the country’s treasury said foreign students were not expected to return before mid-2021 at the earliest.

Umbrella group Universities New Zealand commended the government for “recognising the contribution these students make”. Chief executive Chris Whelan said Wellington had taken a “sensible first step” in giving priority to PhD and master’s students who had already committed to New Zealand.

“We look forward to extending this as soon as possible to all our international students who remain overseas,” he said.

Some 6,000 people with current student visas are stranded offshore, according to Radio NZ, while many more would-be students have been unable to secure visas at all. Immigration authorities have temporarily stopped processing student visas from applicants located offshore.

First-time student visa approvals declined by about 20 per cent last financial year, as the pandemic began to take hold, and have slowed to a trickle since June. While 10,000 or more new students’ visas are normally processed each quarter, fewer than 1,700 were granted between the beginning of July and the suspension of processing in mid-August.

Doctoral candidates from Iran and Pakistan say they have been awaiting the results of their applications for almost a year.

Mr Hipkins defended New Zealand’s “tight border restrictions”, stressing Kiwis’ well-being as the government’s top priority. But he acknowledged international education’s “vital role” in the country’s “recovery and rebuild”.

He said the education ministry would now contact universities and colleges to “work through” student identification and selection. “International PhDs and other postgraduate students make a significant contribution to our research and innovation systems and boost the global reputations and competitiveness of our institutions,” he said.

Australia’s Charles Darwin University appeared set to attract Australasia’s first international student arrivals in around six months, with up to 70 scheduled to fly in from Singapore. The students, who are now expected to travel in early November, will be quarantined for a fortnight in a former workers’ camp near Darwin.

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