New Zealand’s borders
If all goes well, some 500 international students could return to New Zealand each month from January 2021. Source: Marty Melville/AFP

International students are eager to return to New Zealand soon, but only one cohort of international students — comprising doctoral and master’s students — have been approved to return since the country’s border closed in March. The country temporarily suspended applications for temporary visas from outside New Zealand on Aug. 10, 2020. Most foreign students are not expected to return to New Zealand anytime soon, but Education NZ has floated the possibility of letting 500 international students into New Zealand’s borders every month from January, reported NZherald.

The state agency — which promotes New Zealand to international students — said that there will still be 25,000 to 30,000 foreign students in the country when the first semester starts next year based on current numbers “and assuming 500 students arrive in New Zealand each month from January 2021.” A Ministry of Education post-election briefing advised Education Minister Chris Hipkins that officials would discuss “decisions around [the] next proposed cohort [deleted] for class exception for border restrictions” during November, said the report. 

Education NZ urged Hipkins to “issue a clear message to students offshore that New Zealand not only recognises the difficult position they are in, but that New Zealand is keen to welcome students to return to New Zealand when it is safe to do so.” According to the agency’s general manager for stakeholders and communications John Goulter, the figure of 500 students coming in each month was part of a model developed in October “informed by a set of assumptions that modelled historic trends and used them to run several scenarios into 2021.” “These assumptions are not based on any planned work programme by other agencies,” he was quoted saying.

Universities New Zealand (UNZ), which represents the country’s eight universities, said in its post-election briefing that there are 5,200 students enrolled in New Zealand universities but have been forced to study online from offshore. Its chief executive Chris Whelan said they should be the next priority to let pass New Zealand’s borders before any new students. “About half of them just cannot progress until they get to New Zealand, they have to get to laboratories or workshops. We have an obligation to those students,” he said.

New Zealand’s borders remain closed for now

International student numbers have been restricted due to high demand for quarantine hotels by returning New Zealanders. Only 4,500 places are available. That demand, however, could be cut by 40% when New Zealand starts allowing quarantine-free entry from Australia, which was signalled “in principle” this week to take effect in the first quarter of 2021. This would free some 1,800 quarantine places each fortnight. 

Education institutions, including universities, schools and English language schools, are pressing the government to let international students take some of those places. The rationale is most would stay long enough to make it worth paying for a two-week quarantine when compared with tourists. Education NZ says in its post-election briefing to Hipkins that New Zealand’s border closure since March “has been the longest and most restrictive in the world,” adding that “New Zealand education providers will be at a competitive disadvantage for years to come,” it says.

On The Mike Hosking Breakfast show via NewstalkZB, New Zealand Skills and Education Group (NZSEG) founder Brijesh Sethi said New Zealand is losing ground to other countries such as  Australia, Canada and the UK when it comes to attracting international students. Australia’s first successful pilot programme organised by Charles Darwin University (CDU), the Northern Territory and Australian governments saw 63 students returning to Darwin on Nov. 30, 2020. Sethi said the country should have done a pilot “much earlier” as well.