Universities seek travel ban exemption for students

New Zealand’s universities want thousands of Chinese students exempted from a travel ban that is stopping them from flying to New Zealand.

The New Zealand government has banned travellers from mainland China from entering the country in an attempt to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The restriction was made on 2 February, just as the country’s eight universities were preparing for the start of a new academic year in March and has prevented more than half of their Chinese students from entering the country.

Government figures show 6,742 Chinese citizens with valid study visas for universities are in China, while 5,895 are in New Zealand.

The director of Universities New Zealand, Chris Whelan, said the ban was not fair on the students. It also put about NZ$170 million (US$109 million) in fee income from the students at risk.

“From our point of view, it’s extremely serious,” Whelan said.

“We’re currently discussing the idea of an exemption, so some students may be able to come to New Zealand even if there is a more general travel ban,” he said.

“We would be only doing that with the full support of the Ministry of Health and certainly observing any guidelines that they put around it. There are some challenges but we are hopeful we might be able to do something in that space.”

Whelan said the students would be able to comply with the Health Ministry’s guidelines on self-isolation once they arrived.

The Minister of Education, Chris Hipkins, said the government would lift its travel restrictions as soon as possible, but it was not considering making exemptions.

“That's not something that we’ve considered at this point, but we’re going to be looking at all of the options to lessen the impact and to ensure that people aren’t unduly disadvantaged by the travel restriction we’ve got in place at the moment,” he said.

New Zealand’s universities are heavily reliant on foreign students, particularly those from China. In 2018, 18% of the students at New Zealand universities were full fee-paying foreign students and nearly half were from China.

Knock-on effect

Whelan said if the universities lost first-year enrolments as a result of the travel ban, the impact would be felt for years to come.

“Typically students will be around three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years, depending on what sort of programme they’re in, so absolutely any student that we lose this year it has a knock-on effect for at least the next three or four years.”

Whelan said the universities were allowed to teach their students online while they were in China but converting a face-to-face teaching programme to an online format was not straight-forward.

A spokesperson for the Chinese consulate general in Auckland, Xiao Yewen, said the New Zealand government should lift its travel ban for all Chinese.

“This ban is not in line with the professional advice of the WHO [World Health Organization],” he said. “Very, very few countries have taken this kind of measure. The Chinese students will watch this situation.”

Xiao said the consulate appreciated the work New Zealand universities were doing to keep in touch with their students.

The president of the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations, Isabella Lenihan-Ikin, said students should be exempted from the travel ban as soon as possible.

“They’ve already made that financial investment into the New Zealand education sector, they’ve already made an investment into their own education and it would be really unfair for them not to be able to continue that education at the start of the academic year,” she said.