A delay of visa processing means that students may not be able to enter New Zealand even if borders are open to them. Source: Greg Baker/AFP

International students are still facing uncertainty about how their studies will be affected by New Zealand travel restrictions this year. Currently, Immigration New Zealand has suspended visa processing for most individuals who are outside New Zealand at least until Aug.5, 2022.

Universities New Zealand – Te Pōkai Tara chief executive Chris Whelan was quoted saying by The Pie News that it generally takes about five months for international students to satisfy visa requirements, organise travel and everything else necessary to live in New Zealand. He added that they “need confirmation now if they are going to be able to arrive in time for our universities’ second semester in June and July.”

“Although the government has said it will begin a staged reopening of the border to fully vaccinated foreign nationals from April 30, 2022, international university students wanting to start, continue, or finish studies in person need to know when they can enter after that date,” said Whelan.

The recent surge of global COVID-19 cases is once again threatening the country’s plans to begin a phased reopening of their borders to foreign nationals. This included allowing New Zealanders travelling from Australia to enter the country on Jan. 16, 2022 while nationals and residents worldwide were set to return from Feb. 13, 2022. 

In December, it was announced that New Zealand travel for residents would be pushed back to the end of February. This was to give time for New Zealanders to receive their booster shots before their return. 

There have been no updates on how New Zealand travel for non-residents, including international students, will be affected as of yet. However, scientists have urged the government to delay reopening plans until more research has been conducted on the variant. 

International students call for more clarity on New Zealand travel guidelines

Entry into New Zealand is still highly restricted, leaving international students unsure when they can return. Source: Marty Melville/AFP

While international students could return from April, news that visa processing services for students would be on hold until August has cast a shadow of doubt about whether students can return before the start of their second semester. 

“Three cohorts of border exceptions totalling 1,550 international university students have been granted to date but most of Aotearoa New Zealand’s existing and prospective international students remain offshore, uncertain,” said Whelan.

It is the lack of clear information on New Zealand travel, however, that is most concerning. The University of Auckland’s acting director of international operations Ainslie Moore said that this remains the most significant hurdle for students.

“The uncertainty around the timing and isolation process for entering the country is the main barrier,” she told The Pie News. “When students offshore are granted a border exception they apply for a visa, then a spot in MIQ (managed isolation and quarantine). Visa processing for these students have been smooth and timely, but access to MIQ is constrained. Some eligible students with visas in hand are still without an MIQ spot.”

International students are calling on government officials to provide them with more transparency on this matter and have created an online petition for their return, along with clarity on: 

  • When student visa applications for overseas international students open 
  • If international students will be caught by “outrageous restrictions” such as MIQ (managed isolation and quarantine)
  • If the government has alternative plans for those who do not meet the work visa criteria regarding the number of hours spent studying in the country 
  • If students who were unable to have a full university experience in New Zealand will be offered any compensation, such as in the form of tuition fee discounts

Border uncertainty has severely impacted students’ lives

Many students will have spent their entire university experience online. Source: Sam Wasson/AFP

The prospect of being unable to enter the country before the start of their second semester means that some students would have spent their entire university experience online. 

“The expectation to experience something new, something outside my country is unable to be fulfilled,” Thai PhD candidate Natdanai Nachan told the New Zealand Herald. “I hope to know about the exact date and time that I can apply for my visa to enter the country.”

In October 2020, the government gave exemptions for 250 PhD candidates and later 1,000 other international tertiary students to return for their education. Nachan did not qualify. 

Tuba Azeem, a doctoral candidate from Pakistan, was not able to travel to New Zealand under this directive, either. Being overseas has prevented her from receiving her PhD allowance, and she was forced to get married — something she says would not have happened if she had managed to conduct her studies. 

She explained not being able to attend university to receive the “normal training that every other PhD student should be getting in order to complete their research”. “It has just affected my mental health on a very different level,” she told the New Zealand Herald. 

“If the situation doesn’t get any worse, I am expecting to be in New Zealand in 2023 just to submit my thesis,” she added.