universities in New Zealand
People walk on a street in Wellington on May 14, 2020. Source: MARTY MELVILLE/AFP

Universities in New Zealand are eager to welcome international students come 2021, but they will need government assistance to make that a reality. 

According to RNZ, universities are calling for more details from the government so they can develop a quarantine model before September.

Universities New Zealand — the representative body for the country’s eight universities — 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.

McCormack added that 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.

Here’s what we know so far about New Zealand’s policy on returning international students:

Flip-flop on policy: A timeline

New Zealand has been praised for its handling of the pandemic. Source: Marty Melvile/AFP

There’s a lack of clarity for many students who wish to begin or resume their education in New Zealand.

Previously, there were talks about allowing students to begin or resume their education in New Zealand in the second half of the year.

In May, New Zealand education minister Chris Hipkins was quoted saying by NZ Herald that the government is looking to allow international students to return to New Zealand if they can be quarantined safely.

In June, there were talks of making Queenstown in Otago “quarantine town” for incoming international students. This would involve them flying directly into Queenstown, then staying there for 14 days.

Penny Simmonds, chief executive of Southern Institute of Technology said, “Queenstown has got the hotels free, it’s got the space free, it’s got an international airport — it’s a logical site to be bringing international students into for quarantine.”

The National Party had proposed to allow international students in New Zealand to return at the second half of the year.

Their proposal said this would start with a health check before departing their home country, followed by physically distancing on flights and another health check upon arriving in New Zealand.

This is followed by a COVID-19 test at the start of quarantine and again after 14 days. If they test negative for the virus, they can leave quarantine and move to repurposed halls of residence or hotels, which would be certified and monitored by New Zealand’s Ministry of Health.

Colleges and universities will run these facilities while international students will have to pay for the costs.

The current situation

Recently, however, New Zealand’s Finance Minister Grant Robertson said international students are unlikely to return to New Zealand this year as the country will need 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,” reported Stuff.

Hipkins told Stuff that while he understood education providers needed clarity about when travel restrictions would be eased, “our borders are our first line of defence against COVID-19”.

“Given the current global situation, I would expect providers to plan for no international students for the rest of the year,” he said.

“A significant number of New Zealanders who have been living overseas are returning home, and they are our priority at the moment. Easing travel restrictions for other groups of people is a complex issue.”

What’s in store for the future?

Despite New Zealand winning praise for its handling of the pandemic, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Facebook that they must prepare for new COVID-19 outbreaks as the pandemic spreads globally.

“While we have had no community transmission in New Zealand for over 70 days now, every other country that has been in that position has had a resurgence. If that happens here, we have a plan,” she wrote.

Many countries have seen a resurgence in the number of cases, including Australia, Singapore, South Korea and several European countries, which makes it challenging for New Zealand to reopen its borders to international students.

New Zealand’s top officials say it’s unlikely for international students to return this year, but universities are eager to welcome students and facilitate their arrival as quickly as possible. 

Hipkins said a further announcement was expected to be made in the coming weeks.

“International students are important to New Zealand as we recover and rebuild from COVID-19 and the government will allow them to return when it’s safe to do so,” he said.

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