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Covid pain continues for NZ institutions

Image: Rafael Albani, via Shutterstock

New Zealand universities are scrambling to keep up with coronavirus disruptions on multiple fronts

New Zealand’s university system is being severely strained by the country’s latest round of coronavirus restrictions, with uncertainty continuing for postgraduates and staff even as restrictions ease. 

Physical distancing rules, increased cleaning and further delays for overseas students have affected all universities’ ability to teach and undertake research.

On August 28, there were 131 active cases of Covid-19 reported in New Zealand. The city of Auckland dropped from the ‘restrict’ alert level—one below ‘lockdown’—to the lower ‘reduce’ level on August 31, and border-style restrictions between the city and the rest of New Zealand were lifted.

The entire country is now on ‘reduce’, but could drop to the lowest ‘prepare’ level as early as September 6.

Graduate students coming from overseas are still being advised not to make plans to travel to New Zealand, with universities offering to hold places until movement is possible. Immigration New Zealand has suspended visa applications for overseas students for three months from August 10. 

Both staff and students are affected by the ongoing issues. In May, the NZ Tertiary Education Union released research showing that 72 per cent of staff were moderately to very stressed by the Covid-19 crisis, with the online workload and concerns about teaching quality at the top of their worries. A TEU spokesperson told Research Professional News that a follow-up study now being compiled will show the situation for staff has worsened.

In July, the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations surveyed 421 students at all levels and found that two-thirds believed Covid-19 had “significantly increased their stress levels or anxiety about money, accommodation, or study”.

Life at universities in the country is also likely to be very different for the foreseeable future.

Extensions of time for research projects are being handled on a case by case basis at most universities, and campuses are on differing levels of alerts based on their locations.

  • The University of Auckland will continue in remote teaching mode until the mid-semester break, regardless of the official alert level, with limited exceptions for its Whangārei campus and for some business and clinical training programmes. Classes are expected to resume on campus on 21 September.
  • Massey University’s campuses are at different levels of lockdown; its Auckland campus is closed until 2 September, and its Manawatū and Wellington campuses are open at the ‘reduce’ level of restrictions. Massey’s ‘taster days’ have been cancelled but it is going ahead with virtual open days for 4 and 5 September. Existing research students are being advised to apply for extensions only if they were being affected by restrictions.
  • At the University of Otago, smaller classes and labs are continuing, but large lectures have moved online. Otago is already planning for 2021, with provisions for some graduate students to deliver their papers online.
  • Auckland University of Technology has mandated use of its in-house app by all students and staff on its three campuses, to facilitate contact tracing. AUT is planning to go ahead with an in-person open day on 3 October.
  • At Lincoln University in Christchurch, lectures are still online but some small-group activities are proceeding with social distancing. An in-person open evening is tentatively planned for September 22.
  • The universities of Canterbury, Lincoln and Waikato are using scannable QR codes in their buildings for contact tracing. Canterbury is also hoping to run a postponed open day on September 19.