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New Zealand universities are pinning their pandemic recovery hopes on an early 2021 return of international students, after the government ruled out a relaxation of border restrictions this year.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins warned educators not to expect a reopening of the borders while the pandemic continued to “rage” overseas. “We’d be expecting providers to plan for no additional international students for the rest of this year, with a view to bringing in smaller cohorts than they may have previously expected next year,” he said at a media conference.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern urged colleges to moderate their expectations about how many students could be admitted even then, stressing that the borders would remain tightly managed.

She said that before the pandemic, some 117,000 foreign students had arrived in the country each year. “Since we started our quarantine system, we’ve had a total of 31,000 returning New Zealanders come through,” she said. “That gives you a sense of the scale.”

Educators are frustrated at their inability to recruit foreign students despite their country’s well-regarded management of the COVID-19 crisis. The government enhanced the country’s reputation with foreign students by establishing a hardship fund for them and granting them eligibility for a national wage subsidy programs, while suppressing the pandemic more successfully than any other education destination.

Ardern acknowledged that the “strong” health response had made New Zealand “one of the few countries in the world where students can come and be safe from COVID.” But education providers would have to wait to assert this “significant strategic advantage,” she said.

Universities New Zealand chief executive Chris Whelan said that the government was understandably sensitive to people’s fears about travelers reintroducing the coronavirus. Universities accepted that the borders would be reopening “much later than we’d like and at much lower volumes than we’d like,” he said.

“But we also want an assurance that we can plan for a more optimistic scenario -- opening not necessarily earlier, but once we can pretty much assure the public there is no chance that a student is going to get out into the community with COVID.”

Whelan said that universities hoped to admit “many tens of thousands of students” in time for the first semester next year, via university-run quarantine centers with independent oversight. “It’s going to be a matter of how many students can come in each cohort, and how quickly we can ramp up,” he said.

He said that the country’s eight public universities expected the downturn in international enrollments to cost them 200 million New Zealand dollars ($131 million) this year -- a toll that would double next year if graduating foreign students went home and no newly recruited students were allowed in to replace them.

While the government has unveiled millions more in assistance for international education as part of a recovery plan for the sector, the funds have almost completely bypassed universities. The bulk of the money has gone to schools and private training providers.

The Tertiary Education Union said that universities needed financial support to replace the lost revenue from international students, which normally cross-subsidized domestic courses. “We need to see some indication that a plan is being developed, and that’s just missing from this package,” union president Michael Gilchrist told Radio NZ.

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