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Australia and New Zealand set out plans for reopening to international students

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Australia and New Zealand are each working through a carefully calibrated plan of reopening their respective economies
  • The national governments in both countries have signalled that the borders may open to international students in the coming months, with some restrictions and quarantine measures in place
  • On 13 May, New Zealand moved to Alert Level 2, which allows for reopening of schools and higher education institutions

Australia and New Zealand have both been lauded for their success in stemming the COVID-19 outbreak. As of 12 May, Australia had recorded just under 7,000 confirmed cases and 97 deaths whereas New Zealand has confirmed less than 1,200 cases and 21 deaths. Daily infection rates have remained low in both countries in recent weeks and now both have also announced plans for a phased reopening of their respective economies and borders.

“The safest possible way”

In an 8 May statement, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison set out a three-step plan to gradually remove current public health and travel restrictions. The plan is perhaps best understood as a recovery roadmap from Australia’s national government. The actual implementation of the plan and the timing of each phase will fall to Australian states and territories in the months ahead.

“We are confidently and cautiously taking the first step to lifting restrictions,” said Prime Minister Morrison. “Our success so far means we have slowed the spread of COVID-19 and built the capacity in our health system to manage the impact of the virus. We can now start to progressively ease the restrictions we have in place.”

The broad strokes of the Australian plan are outlined in the graphic below. Of particular note to international educators and recruiters is “Step 3” where the government anticipates that the borders may once again be opened to international students.

The Australian government’s roadmap for reopening the Australian economy.

The timing of the Australian plan suggests that international students may be able to travel to the country again as of July, likely with some restrictions still in place and with strict post-arrival protocols that will include a quarantine period. Media reports suggest that any cohort of foreign students admitted in July would likely be drawn from a specific group of source countries where the virus has also been brought under control. That initial cohort will in effect also serve as a pilot that could lead to a larger intake in the latter months of 2020 and into 2021.

Educators are understandably encouraged by the government’s announcement, and Universities Australia has expressed its support for the plan. Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said in a related statement, “We know students and staff are eager to restart face-to-face learning, but a cautious and gradual approach will be taken with the safety of our staff, students and communities as the top priority…We welcome the inclusion of international student travel down the track, in step three.”

Australia’s international education sector is valued at nearly AUS$40 billion, making it one of the country’s top export categories. Australia’s foreign enrolment grew by just under 10% in 2019 to reach nearly 760,000 students. This level of enrolment makes Australia the world’s second-leading study destination after only the United States.

Moving to Level 2

On 13 May, New Zealand continued the planned reopening of its economy with a move to Alert Level 2, which marks an important next step within a four-level emergency measures scheme. The move is especially notable as it triggers the opening of a number of additional facilities, businesses, and institutions, including schools.

At Level 2, the government explains, “Early learning services, schools and tertiary education facilities are open to all ages.  It is safe to attend all forms of education. Additional public health measures are in place.” In practice, this will mean the distance learning services will remain in place for many schools and institutions, including within the country’s universities which are expected to continue to deliver most of their programmes online through July. 

A week earlier, during a 7 May media availability, Education Minister Chris Hipkins made it clear that the New Zealand government was also working on a plan to allow international students to return to the country, likely in advance of a wider opening for international tourists. The economic impact of the sector in New Zealand is estimated at NZD$5 billion.

“Unlike tourists who are coming here for a short period of time, international students are coming here for a year or more,” said the Minister. “It’s quite possible that we would be able to work with international education providers to manage a period of quarantine at the beginning of, say, a year’s worth of study so they can come into New Zealand…That’s something we’re working through with the sector.”

Minister Hipkins also signalled the government’s interest in concrete proposals from the education sector that would include enforceable quarantine periods for arriving students. He added, “It is possible that we’ll be able to put a quarantine arrangement in place for international students coming into New Zealand that sees them quarantining for two weeks, that way we know that when they come into wider New Zealand society they are COVID-free.”

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