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New Zealand to allow first international students to return this year

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A small number of international students will be allowed into the country beginning in November 2020 to resume advanced studies at universities
  • The government can’t say when more students will be permitted to return, and acknowledges that this is disappointing for institutions outside the university sector
  • The decision was made as a “pragmatic” approach aimed at balancing public safety and the significant economic contribution made by international students

The government of New Zealand has been rightly lauded for its approach to protecting citizens during the pandemic, and this has included an almost-total shutdown of the country’s borders for most of the year. But while arrivals are few, there have been exceptions: more than 10,000 health workers, other essential workers, and family of citizens or permanent residents have been allowed back into the country. Now, a small number of international students have been added to the list of exceptions: 250 international PhD and postgraduate students will shortly be permitted to return to New Zealand to resume their studies.

In a statement for the media, Education Minister Chris Hipkins said that,

“The exception today is a balanced decision that recognises the vital role international education will play in the recovery and rebuild of New Zealand and the need to continue the fight against the pandemic. It will enable us to welcome back a good portion of those PhD and Masters students who are caught off-shore, and who need to be in New Zealand to complete their work.

These are students who hold or held a visa for 2020, and whose long-term commitment to study here was disrupted by COVID-19. Priority will be given first to those who need to be in the country for the practical components of their research and study.

The first students are likely to arrive November 2020, with the majority arriving in the new year.”

New Zealand’s international education sector was a NZ$5 billion dollar industry before COVID-19 hit (2017 figures), with more than 30,000 students coming to study in the country’s universities in 2018. Across all types of institution, there were 117,275 international students enrolled in New Zealand in 2018.

Only the university sector for now

Mr Hipkins acknowledged that the number of students who will be allowed to return is small, and he anticipated disappointment from some in the education sector:

“The number of international students we are granting exceptions for is a very small proportion compared to the numbers we are used to. I acknowledge that other international education providers, such as schools and Private Training Establishments, will be disappointed that their students are not a part of this border exception group.”

He called the careful approach “pragmatic” and noted that it “allows us to carefully manage the demand on our quarantine facilities and the complex nature of bringing students back into the country.”

The universities sector welcomed the announcement. Universities New Zealand chief executive Chris Whelan said,

“Prioritising PhD and Masters students who are already committed to studying in New Zealand is a sensible first step to bringing our international students back. We look forward to extending this as soon as possible to all our international students who remain overseas.”

Mr Hipkins says that he can’t say when more students will be permitted to come into the country, however: “[It’s] difficult to put specific time frames on that, because there are still so many unknowns.” Back in August, the minister had warned the international education sector not to expect any international students to come to the country this year, and announced NZ$51.6 million (US$35 million) in funding to help schools and universities cope in the pandemic.

Universities urged to help with costs

As per New Zealand law during the pandemic, the students – like all international arrivals – will have to quarantine for 14 days in isolation hotels. The government has not yet indicated whether students will pay for their flights and stay at designated hotels (around NZ$3,000), and the New Zealand International Students’ Association is recommending that universities share some of the costs. The association’s president, Sabrina Alhady, told Radio New Zealand (RNZ),

“It would be a really good investment if institutions can consider bearing some of that cost and following up on a cost-sharing model, so that international students coming back in have that financial pressure alleviated. A lot of them will all have to pay for flights to get into the country, which will be undoubtedly exorbitant and we want to make sure students are being supported by institutions.”

For additional background, please see:


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