New Zealand government
Another call for for a “trial” return of international students in New Zealand. Source: MARTY MELVILLE/AFP

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Sir John Key has called on the New Zealand government to do a “trial” return of international students. 

Speaking to reporters following his keynote speech at a COVID-19 crisis summit in Auckland on Wednesday, Key said the influx of revenue from the return of international students would bring to the country during its economic recovery, reported Newshub.

Quoting a report released by leading New Zealand economist Eric Crampton in May, Newshub said Statistics New Zealand estimated international students who studied for a year or less spent 3.9 billion New Zealand dollars in the year to March 2019.

“If you think about our education sector [nationwide], there’s a big revenue flow from international students. I think we can turn that tap back on quite successfully,” he was quoted saying, adding that this would be a lifeline for universities that rely enormously on foreign students.

Universities New Zealand — the representative body for the country’s eight universities — issued a plea to the government in June to reopen the border to international students, claiming they were staring down the barrel of a NZ$400 million loss if pupils didn’t return in time for the second semester. 

He added that while they want to avoid community transmission, Key believes the universities have the capacity to appropriately quarantine incoming students for 14 days and test them, the same way the country welcomes New Zealanders who are returning from overseas.

“I think we should allow them to bring foreign students in, I think they should be responsible for that quarantining,” he said.

Can universities properly quarantine students?

The New Zealand government has been lauded for its efforts to curb COVID-19, but many universities are anxious as borders remain closed to international students. 

Finance Minister Grant Robertson had said international students are unlikely to return to New Zealand this year as the country needs time to establish the quarantine facilities needed to let students back in.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins also said it is unlikely that international students will be allowed to enter this year as COVID-19 is “raging overseas”.

Universities New Zealand has previously argued that hostels could be used to accommodate and monitor international students if they were permitted to return, while Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope has also suggested that “universities could properly quarantine people”.

As COVID-19 coudl be around “for a long time,” Key suggested that a trial group of international students might build confidence in reintroducing international students on a larger scale.

“Start with a couple of hundred students and go from there as you build your confidence levels,” he said, noting universities would potentially need to operate under a stricter testing and quarantine regime to ensure the safe reintroduction of students.

New Zealand universities eager to develop quarantine model

Previously, universities were calling for more details from the government so they can develop a quarantine model before September 2020.

Universities New Zealand chair Derek McCormack said talks with the government were going well until returning New Zealanders recently breached their isolation.

“The universities have got good ideas and we’re in a position where we need to wait on [the] government to engage with us on what the regulations would be to satisfy everybody that it would be safe to bring in international students,” he said.

He believes international students pose less risk than returning New Zealanders because they can be chosen from countries with few COVID-19 cases and will be deported if they break quarantine.

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