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18th Aug 2021

New Zealand to begin opening to vaccinated travellers in 2022

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • New Zealand has announced plans to begin opening to fully vaccinated travellers from low-risk countries in early 2022
  • Some international students who have been granted border exemptions to return to studies this year in New Zealand have decided not to return, a choice driven in part by price sensitivity

International students will have to wait until at least 2022 to travel to New Zealand for study, and educators are growing increasingly concerned that the government is cooling further on the idea of restoring international enrolments to pre-pandemic levels. Despite pressure from both the public and private sector to open New Zealand’s border this year to alleviate worker shortages and revenue shortfalls due to decreased tourism, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden said in a recent speech that such a move is not yet advisable:

“We’re simply not in a position to fully reopen just yet. When we move we will be careful and deliberate, because we want to move with confidence and with as much certainty as possible.”

The government’s plan is to allow vaccinated travellers from low-risk countries to come into New Zealand without needing to quarantine beginning in early 2022. A short quarantine will still be necessary at that point for people coming in from medium-risk countries, while the full quarantine will be required for travellers from high-risk countries.

Part of the delay in opening borders is that New Zealand’s vaccine rollout is proceeding much more slowly than those in other developed nations, with fewer than a quarter of the population fully vaccinated so far. By contrast, 77% of eligible Britons, 62% of eligible Canadians, and 50% of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated.

Some international students opting out

A small number of international students – about 1,250 – have been offered the chance to come into New Zealand in 2021 to complete their studies under an exception to current border restrictions. But Times Higher Education (THE) is reporting that rather than jumping on the chance to return, many international students are deciding it’s not worth it, deterred by “the rarity and expense of flights and quarantine costs of up to NZ$5,520 per person.” Universities New Zealand Chief Executive Chris Whelan, told Times Higher Education’s THE Live ANZ conference that some students are deciding that “finishing off online is easier [than paying to come back into New Zealand for in-person classes]” and that others are waiting to return next year when “flights are more frequent and hopefully cheaper.” Mr Whelan noted that logistics are also an issue:

“We ended up with those students coming in a lot more slowly than we had expected …. Realistically, it takes five or six months from making an offer to a student to being able to get that student here.”

How much recovery, how soon?

As in all leading destinations, the recovery of New Zealand’s international education sector will be largely dependent on government policy. The country has always been popular among international students and is positively viewed in terms of its ability to contain COVID infections (so far there have been under 3,000 cases and 26 deaths – a stunning achievement given the relentless ability of the virus to spread in populations). In this way, government policies have boosted the allure of New Zealand among international students.

But tight border controls – as well as indications that the government is not actually interested in bringing back large numbers of international students – are causing concern among New Zealand educators about their chances of enrolling significant numbers of students after the pandemic is over.

A draft government document is warning that the return of large numbers of international students could “worsen housing and teacher shortages, enrich some institutions but not others, and create over-reliance on students' fees,” according to media source RNZ. The document states that the government will be reviewing work rights for international students and that students studying in non-degree courses may only be able to remain in the country after graduating to work if their jobs are in areas that meet labour market tests.

The document signals a more restrictive approach to welcoming international students into the country in the future, but it is also not surprising given pre-COVID strategies first announced in 2018 aimed at “rebalancing” New Zealand’s international student enrolments.

New Zealand Minister of Education Chris Hipkins has described the “planned rebalancing” strategy as representing “… a shift from international education as a revenue generating export industry to one that incorporates domestic students, boosts global skills and enriches our country socially and culturally” and one that focuses on “quality over quantity.” He said in 2019 that, “Good progress has been made to remove low-quality providers, and eliminating non-genuine students entering through the student visa, solely in pursuit of residence.”

Aspire2 international chief executive Clare Bradley is not surprised by the government’s signals that it will be pursuing a highly selective international education strategy:

"For years and years and years the message that went out from the policy makers, from Education New Zealand was come here, study, work and potentially settle. Now we've got the clear direction from this government that the 'settle' part of that needs to have way more question marks around it.”

For additional background, please see:

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