University vaccine mandates ‘defy national stereotypes’

Legal minefields or unpalatable impositions in some countries, immunisation mandates prove surprisingly achievable in others

October 6, 2021
vaccine needle inoculation injection
Source: iStock

New Zealand universities have outsourced decisions about vaccine mandates to government agencies, with firmer action thwarted by the very type of legislation used to compel mandates in the US.  

No New Zealand university currently plans to make immunisation status a precondition of entry to campus, unlike Australia where universities are embracing vaccine mandates

The cross-Tasman contrast exemplifies the different approaches around the world. Vaccination requirements for campus attendance are non-existent in some countries and universal in others, in ways that defy national stereotypes. 

Hundreds of institutions have imposed mandates in the US, despite its reputation for prioritising personal freedom above public health. But in Singapore, which has outlawed littering, spitting and chewing gum, immunisation mandates appear legally unenforceable – partly because Covid vaccines have only been given emergency approval. 

Mandates may also be unenforceable in New Zealand, for different reasons. University of Waikato law professor Claire Breen said vaccine passports would have to be consistent with anti-discrimination legislation, including New Zealand’s Human Rights Act. 

Arguably, lacking Covid-19 antibodies could be viewed as a form of disability, and rules that disadvantaged people with such a disability would be unacceptable. 

Ironically, similar legislation is being used to pressure US campuses to require vaccination. The Biden administration has warned that federal funding could be withheld in places where vaccination mandates are outlawed. 

Its threats hinge on federal civil rights laws that forbid discrimination against students based on disabilities, with institutions expected to ensure health protections for such students. 

Professor Breen said that equity of access – not only to vaccines, but also the digital technology underpinning vaccine passports – would need to be considered in New Zealand.  

“Digital vaccination certificates will help in the effort to reopen borders and protect public health, but there are significant implications for our rights as individuals,” she wrote in The Conversation. “Ultimately it will be a balancing act, not a case of absolutes.” 

Universities New Zealand executive director Chris Whelan said blanket requirements around vaccination were not permitted under the country’s legislation.  

He said that universities could only require immunisation when it was needed to meet particular requirements, such as international travel or physical distancing in places such as libraries or fitness centres. “For all other staff and students, universities can only strongly recommend they be vaccinated.” 

Asked whether they were considering more general vaccine mandates, New Zealand universities said they were following the lead of government agencies.

Eric Crampton, chief economist at The New Zealand Initiative thinktank, said he expected universities to change their stance as the government introduced new “alert level restrictions” that “exclude the unvaccinated”. House of Representatives speaker Trevor Mallard had already given a foretaste of this by suggesting that only vaccinated staff would be allowed into the parliamentary precinct.  

Dr Crampton said new rules could restrict lecture halls to 100 people unless universities could vouch that everybody in attendance was vaccinated, in which case “much higher” numbers would be allowed. But he said that universities had been “nervous” about “moving ahead” of government guidelines, for fear of “pushback from rights advocacy organisations or anti-vaxxers”.  

He said it was “disappointing” that universities, which were “filled with smart people”, looked to government for guidance on such issues. “It would be almost heroic to think that the government can provide fine-grained advice that would be suitable in every workplace.” 

In Australia, Western Sydney University has become the fourth university to flag vaccination as a condition of campus attendance. Vice-chancellor Barney Glover said government-imposed public health orders were “very valuable” in helping universities manage their campuses. “The greater [the] level of clarity and consistency we have in the community when it comes to a pandemic, the better,” he said.

But Professor Glover said if governments were “not inclined” to mandate vaccines for entry to university campuses – as appeared to be the case in New South Wales – “local decision-making” became paramount. “Then you’ve got to work with your local staffing and student concerns.” 

In Malaysia, the government has taken the decision out of universities’ hands. Higher education minister Noraini Ahmad has decreed that only fully vaccinated students will be allowed on campuses when they open up from mid-October.  

But Singapore universities could expose themselves to legal challenge if they try to impose “stricter requirements than the government”, which has issued no such decree. 

“What may be more feasible is to encourage than to require vaccination,” said Alex Cook, vice-dean of research at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health. 

He said that a fully vaccinated university was desirable from a public health perspective. “There would be less spread on campus and less spread to families, which is especially important in a primarily non-residential university such as mine. But with 90 per cent or so of the eligible population vaccinated in Singapore, the benefits to this would be smaller than in a less vaccinated population such as the US.

Dr Cook said that the need for mandates would diminish as other societies reached high vaccination thresholds. “The major part of the university body is young, and at low risk of severe Covid,” he noted.  

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