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Universities pin hopes on extra quarantine capacity

Image: New Zealand Tertiary Education Union [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

New Zealand vice-chancellors look to minister Chris Hipkins for a solution to international student dilemma

New Zealand’s universities are racing against enrolment deadlines to try to find a way to get international students back into the country.

Chris Whelan (pictured), chief executive of vice-chancellors’ group Universities New Zealand, has warned that at the end of February 2021, when the first semester starts, “we are going to be on hundreds of [international] students, not the 14,000 or 15,000 students we’d be expecting”.

Without a large-scale return of international students, who normally make up about 16 per cent of the student cohort and pay higher fees, Universities New Zealand estimates that higher education will lose up to another NZ$200 million in 2021.

The issue is at the top of Universities New Zealand’s agenda for a meeting with education minister Chris Hipkins on 4 December. The fact that Hipkins is now also minister for the Covid-19 response, including border controls, is a “big development”, Whelan said. “For the first time, we have a single minister who may be able to unpick these issues.”

“Obviously we don’t expect miracles overnight, but we think this is a positive development [that makes] it far more likely we will be able to work our way towards a mutually successful outcome.”

Whelan said that despite the understandable focus on preventing the entry of Covid-19 into New Zealand, “hopefully it’s just about expanding [quarantine] capacity and being able to restart international education. It’s just a question of how fast.”

Universities New Zealand is critical of the government’s recovery plan for international education, which emphasises online learning. “Its weakness was it was developed by government agencies without any input from providers,” Whelan said. “We have a middle-to-long-term question about what the future is for international education. But the simple reality is that every student that you attract to New Zealand…contributes economically about NZ$330,000.”

“You don’t get that offshore, you don’t get that from distance. New Zealand needs to be very explicit about: ‘What is its value?’ You don’t get the people-to-people links, you don’t get the ongoing research collaborations, you don’t get the tourism bump when you’re teaching students offshore. Thinking through the value proposition is going to be quite important.”

When the pandemic first started, “preventing community transmission of Covid was an absolutely critical factor and [people] would not countenance anything that exposed them or their families to it”, he said. “For the government, international education was sort of an abstract concept against the health and welfare of citizens.”

But universities are now considering their options to offset lost revenue, he said, including staff cost savings, restructuring, cancellation of capital works or borrowing. “The government is obviously heavily invested in seeing that we don’t fail or see a marked reduction in the quality of teaching, or quantity and quality and impact of research.”

The impact of losing international students varies widely across the country’s eight universities, he said. “So you’ve got the University of Otago at just 7 per cent [international enrolments] versus, say, the Auckland University of Technology at 23 per cent.”