Chinese students ‘face discrimination since travel ban’

Chinese students are suffering from stress, racial discrimination and lack of academic support following the imposition due to the coronavirus outbreak of a travel ban by New Zealand on visitors from mainland China who left the country after 2 February, according to Sabrina Alhady, president of New Zealand International Students Association or NZISA.

Speaking to TVNZ 1 on 10 February, Alhady said: “International students are facing quite a bit of distress, so in terms of mental health there has been a huge impact. There have been a lot of issues with racial discrimination and also just academic support issues.

“They don't know what's going to happen next, and they don’t know how this is going to impact their education.”

She said students had faced both racism and “straight out discrimination”, citing for example that landlords have denied students access to properties they had already paid to rent.

Racial discrimination by landlords

“Landlords are discriminating over the fact that they are of Asian descent or are Chinese. We can sense that there is quite a hostility there towards Chinese students,” Alhady told TVNZ.

In an earlier statement on 3 February, Alhady strongly criticised the New Zealand government’s “hasty” travel ban and said the government had failed to consider the impact on international students.

She said the failure to “adequately provide support” to international students highlights how international students are being “treated as cash cows” and how “initiatives by government and institutions to raise student numbers are severely hindered by the lack of support services available for these students from both government and institutions alike”.

She said: “NZISA recognises the existing health crisis due to the current spread of coronavirus. However, the government has failed to consider the impacts on international students from or travelling through China. Due to the short notice of the ban, institutions have had limited time to respond to or put in place procedures to support their international students affected by the ban – some of these institutions do not even have medical centres dedicated to their students.”

‘Failure of government and institutions’

She said there had been a “failure of government and institutions to respond to the overall crisis in a proactive manner” and this had put international students at an “immense disadvantage”.

“A prompt, appropriate response to the travel ban from education providers is crucial to ensure students are receiving the support they need, for New Zealand’s export education sector to ensure it sets a precedent for other international study destinations, and to push the sector in the right direction with a more student-centric approach.”

Alhady said despite being unable to travel back to New Zealand, international students were financially at a loss and obligated to arrange payments for various services they cannot access.

Their problems included an inability to reclaim application fees for visas, still having to fork out for their place in student halls or private flats due to signed contracts, still having to pay “exhorbitant” tuition fees while missing out on classes, and not being advised whether, if they defer their course, they will have to pay the application fee for another student visa.

She questioned why Immigration New Zealand was “allowed to retain roughly NZ$10 million [US$6.5 million] in application fees when students are banned from entering the country”.

NZISA together with the New Zealand Chinese Students' Association indicated that measures that should be taken include making changes to the academic calendar to accommodate international students affected by the travel ban, ensuring staff and students do not discriminate against Chinese students, providing clear and regular information relating to the coronavirus problem, promptly advising international students of procedures and protocols in place, and providing appropriate support to and regularly checking up on any international student in isolation in New Zealand.

Tertiary Education Union (TEU) President Michael Gilchrist said on 12 February that a meeting of the tertiary education sector may be needed to “allay any concerns there may be around the health of staff and students at this time, and so that institutions can voice their concerns and know they are being heard”.

Institutions impacted financially

The TEU has also warned that measures may need to be put in place to protect those institutions worst impacted financially by the drop in enrolments and revenue.

“It’s vital that those institutions [that are] already struggling financially are supported and that this doesn’t impact their capacity to continue serving their communities down the track. TEU has been warning for years now that a flawed funding system that relies on revenue from international students was always going to expose us to this kind of situation. Now that these concerns are being realised, our tertiary education institutions need assurances.”

According to a statement from Universities New Zealand on 5 February, students from China make up the largest proportion of international students coming to New Zealand (nearly 45%), with about 15,000 expected in the country over the next month and the consequences of delays in enrolments “for the universities – as well as for students – are serious”.

The University of Auckland said it estimated that between 50% and 75% of its Chinese students were stuck in China, according to a report by Radio New Zealand. Te Herenga Waka/Victoria University of Wellington said the 800 Chinese students it took in each year were worth millions of dollars to the host institutions and the areas where they live.

But Universities New Zealand Chief Executive Chris Whelan said on 5 February: “Our key concern is ensuring our students can do their studies without any risk to their health or the health of everyone else in our university communities. We know travel plans are already being disrupted by the travel restrictions, and we want to make sure no student has to delay their studies or re-organise their visas. Plans are being put in place to ensure both these things.”

Talks with government

He said talks were continuing between the government and tertiary institutions to respond to the situation and some of the issues being discussed include:

  • • Getting clear information to all students not yet in New Zealand about what will be done to help them start their studies if the travel restrictions continue for the full two weeks or beyond.

  • • Ensuring it is easy for students to get answers to their questions at any time.

  • • Confirming flexibility with visa conditions for students who have to delay their travel.

Whelan said: “We understand that this is a frightening and confusing time for our students, and urge any students who have not yet been in touch with their university to check the university’s website for the best way to ensure they can stay in touch.”

The Education Ministry website provides numbers for students to call to get health advice in relation to the virus and a number for international students with accommodation issues. Information is also provided by the Tertiary Education Commission.