Universities hope for border opening for international students

New Zealand’s universities are hoping the country will reopen its borders to foreign students by the middle of next year, allowing them to replenish international enrolments that have dwindled steadily due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The eight universities have welcomed barely a handful of new international students since the government closed the borders to all but a few non-citizens early last year to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Universities New Zealand Chief Executive Chris Whelan said the institutions now had about 14,000 international students, which was about 30% less than their total in pre-pandemic 2019.

He said that was a lot better than the initial “doom and gloom” forecasts at the start of the pandemic.

“At this stage our international student numbers are about 70% of what they were pre-COVID, quite astonishingly high,” Whelan said.

“A lot of international students have stuck with their New Zealand studies and carried on from undergraduate into postgraduate. But a surprising number of students have been continuing studying remotely, either starting qualifications in the hope they can get here to finish them, or finishing off qualifications where they just haven’t been able to get back.”

International education is traditionally one of the single largest sources of export earnings for New Zealand, worth an estimated NZ$5 billion (US$3.5 billion) a year.

In 2019, 18% of New Zealand university students were international students and universities have been trying to find a way of allowing more to enter the country.

The main impediment has been a requirement for managed isolation in hotels where capacity constraints mean nearly all spaces have been reserved for New Zealand citizens.

Whelan said universities now accepted that foreign students could not return in large numbers until the managed isolation system was removed.

He said they were hoping New Zealand would replace it with a system allowing international travel by people who were double-vaccinated.

A key prerequisite would be high vaccination rates among the New Zealand population.

Currently, 90% of the population aged 12 years or over have had at least their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine and 80% are fully vaccinated.

Whelan said universities hoped foreign students might be able to enter New Zealand by mid-2022.

“A lot of it’s going to depend on when borders reopen,” he said.

“Even when we get an announcement, it’s going to take at least five or six months from the point where we can start telling students ‘yes, you can come back’, to them actually being able to complete all the processes and to organise their lives and actually arrive here.”