Overseas student hopes rise as New Zealand plans for open borders

Access and safety in the one package, as island nation banks its Covid management success

August 13, 2021
People celebrating Chinese Year of the Snake, Wellington, New Zealand
Source: iStock

New Zealand’s “reconnecting” road map could breathe life back into the stuttering international education industry, with the country’s virtually virus-free status helping regain ground lost through 18 months of border restrictions.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern has outlined the steps the government intends to take in reopening to the world, with a mass vaccination programme this year to be followed by the resumption of international arrivals in 2022.

The government says it has enough stocks to inoculate every local aged over 15 by the end of the year. Its reliance on the Pfizer vaccine avoids the resistance to AstraZeneca that has hamstrung Australia’s immunisation programme.

And from 2022, travellers will be allowed into New Zealand via three “pathways” based on their vaccination status and infection levels in the country of departure. Vaccinated people who have spent at least a fortnight in low-risk countries will be allowed quarantine-free entry, with short-duration or home-based isolation available to those from medium-risk countries.

But New Zealand intends to maintain its “elimination” strategy, Ms Ardern said. “While the pandemic continues to rage overseas, and the virus continues to change and mutate, the best thing we can do is lock in the gains achieved to date while keeping our options open,” she said.

“There won’t be zero cases, but when there is one in the community, we crush it. [That] is the best way to maintain our normal lives while we monitor the twists and turns of Covid-19 over the next six months.”

The University of Auckland’s international director, Brett Berquist, said the approach was much as the sector had anticipated. “It’s what we expect from our government – clear articulation of where we want to be [and] plans for how to get there, built on advice from science, health and policy specialists,” he said.

“The government received advice it had commissioned, made some decisions at cabinet level and quickly moved to share with the public what the long-term plan was. It seems to us in the sector to be a sound plan [but] the devil’s in the detail.”

One key detail is timing. While some are optimistic that borders could reopen as early as January, before most classes start in late February or early March, others think mid-year arrivals are more likely.

Another key detail is the risk rating of countries – particularly China, source of 43 per cent of overseas enrolments at New Zealand’s eight universities. While there has been speculation that China could be placed in the lowest risk category, an insider tipped a medium rating. “But even that would not require a two-week managed isolation and quarantine stay,” he noted.

The approach could mean the best of both worlds for overseas students: reasonably open borders and a largely Covid-free lifestyle in a country that has recorded just 26 coronavirus deaths.

“We have had two-thirds fewer cases than Australia per capita [despite] having the least stringent restrictions in the OECD,” Ms Ardern said. Unemployment had fallen to pre-Covid levels and New Zealand had outperformed Australia, the US, Canada, Japan and the UK on economic growth.

Mr Berquist said the international students allowed in under two limited intakes so far had remarked at the lack of restrictions. “They say: ‘It’s like Covid never happened. You have to put a face mask on in the bus; otherwise, you can go where you want.’”

But with considerable vaccine hesitancy in the country and a government prepared to impose harsh lockdowns to contain minor outbreaks, such freedoms could be interrupted at short notice – a risk that may rise as the borders reopen.

Mr Berquist said Brand New Zealand was “riding high” on successful virus management and consistent government communications. “[But] it would be unreasonable to think that long-term, New Zealand will remain in the 100 per cent virus-free environment we’ve had for the past 18 months. It’s about preparing for more flexibility and managing the timing [so that] things transition in a planned way.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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