Government granted powers to control all universities

New Zealand’s government has given itself unprecedented powers over universities and schools as the nation begins four weeks of lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Education Minister, Chris Hipkins, announced that parliament had passed a bill granting the Education Ministry emergency powers over all educational institutions.

Hipkins said the ministry’s chief executive, the Secretary for Education Iona Holsted, would now be able to issue binding directions to the governing authorities of education providers.

“The secretary will be able to direct education providers to open and close, direct how they operate, are controlled and managed, and direct them to provide education in specified ways, for example through distance or online learning,” he said.

“This applies to all education providers, not just public providers.”

Hipkins said the changes preserved academic freedom.

“These emergency powers are required so that we can continue to ensure that there is a unified response to the outbreak of COVID-19, given that there are 2,500 school board entities and 4,000 service providers,” he said.

“We may need to act quickly with speed and pace from the centre and in order to do this these powers will be required.”

Universities were already moving toward online teaching where possible when the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced on Monday afternoon that the nation would enter lockdown at the stroke of midnight on Wednesday 25 March.

Panic and tears

That sparked panic and tears for thousands of university students living in flats and student residences, who had to quickly decide whether to remain in their current accommodation or move home with their families.

Flights and ferry sailings between New Zealand’s North and South Island quickly booked out and the government was forced to allow such travel to continue until midnight on Friday.

The vice-chancellor of Victoria University of Wellington, Grant Guilford, told Radio New Zealand it was closing all but one of its 11 student hostels.

He said he expected that only about 300 students would not be able to move home and they would be moved into the one remaining hostel.

Other universities were keeping their student residences open.

The University of Otago suspended all face-to-face teaching as soon as the government made its announcement.

The vice-chancellor, Harlene Hayne, said: “We are living in exceptional times, and I very much appreciate the resilience of our students and staff as we adapt to this changing situation. Please continue to look after each other. Be strong, stay calm and be kind.”