How coronavirus could cost our universities and polytechs $100M

Hundreds attended a meeting at the University of Auckland prompted by recent violent attacks on international students.
Hundreds attended a meeting at the University of Auckland prompted by recent violent attacks on international students. Photo credit: RNZ/ Kim Baker Wilson

By Karoline Tuckey of RNZ

Thousands of students aren't sure if they will make it to class on time because of travel restrictions in response to the coronavirus, and universities and polytechnics stand to lose more than $100 million if the restrictions continue, a sector spokesman warns.

Health minister David Clark has extended a ban on foreigners entering the country if they are coming from or through mainland China, until 24 February. Though this is being reviewed every two days.

The travel ban will throw many students' plans into disarray. Some polytech courses have already begun, and some universities start their first semester on Monday.

Latest figures (from 2018) show 18 percent of university enrolments were international students - and Chinese students made up almost 50 percent of those.

Even if there are no further extensions to the travel ban, it's likely some students will have changed their plans to study here, Tertiary Education Union president Michael Gilchrist said. And if the restrictions continue he's worried the impact will be significant.

Gilchrist said the potential damage would be worse because it comes on the back of visa tightening and processing delays last year, which the TEU estimates cost tertiary institutes between $100 and $120 million - and if the travel restrictions are extended he warned there could be similar losses this year.

"We have become over-reliant financially, on international students in general, and Chinese students in particular; Chinese students make up a significant proportion of the expected income of some universities and polytechnics."

The TEU blames decades of government underfunding for forcing the tertiary sector to depend on lucrative foreign fees.

International student fees should be seen as the cherry on top, not the bread and butter institutions must rely on to get by - precisely because it exposes universities and polytechs to market wobbles like this, Gilchrist has been saying for some time.

Balancing act for government

Universities of New Zealand director Chris Whelan said the government has a difficult balancing act on their hands as they reviewed the travel restrictions - juggling public health concerns over the spread of the disease, the economic impact of the bans, and the impact it will have on students lives. But the timing couldn't be worse.

"It's difficult - as a university sector we have 6500 university students who are currently stuck in China because of the travel ban, and we're still not sure how long it's going to take before we can get our students here."

Even once the restrictions end, students will need time to organise travel, many airlines have suspended services to China. Those entering the country from China may still be asked to self-isolate for 14 days after their arrival - the duration it could take for carriers to show signs of the disease - delaying their arrival at classes further.

"It's a massive disruption of their lives and their plans. The longer it carries on, the harder it's going to be," he said.

"We're working very closely with government, talking on a daily basis about the situation, and letting our students know what's going on. From our point of view we hope the ban is as short as possible, but we do understand the government has to be prudent."

Chris Whelan, executive director, Te Pōkai Tara - Universities New Zealand.
Chris Whelan, executive director, Te Pōkai Tara - Universities New Zealand. Photo credit: RNZ/Supplied.

It's likely some students will opt to study in countries where no travel restrictions are in place.

"It's very definitely a risk for us - countries like the UK and Canada have not imposed a travel ban.

"In the Northern Hemisphere they're half-way through their academic year, but if this ban goes on too long Chinese students would be able to start in those countries come July or August, when the Northern Hemisphere universities begin their academic year."

Whelan agreed the sector has been forced to rely on fees from international students.

"If we do lose significant numbers of students it's going to be a very significant financial challenge, not just for universities but for the whole tertiary education sector and the schooling sector as well.

"We are now extremely dependant on being able to get those students here to be able to remain financially viable. Our government funding per student has been declining in real terms over the last 15 - 20 years, to the point where we're now funded below the OECD average. "

The long-term decline in funding to universities was matched by the slow slip of New Zealand universities in prestigious international rankings, Whelan said, which created a compounding vulnerability for universities recruiting international students to prop their incomes up.

Already the coronavirus travel ban was causing problems for universities trying to estimate class sizes and the teachers needed, he said.

Gilchrist expects if there is no government funding increase to help institutions cope, universities and especially polytechs will be forced to reduce teacher to student ratios, and staff who he says are already asked to do more to make up for funding gaps, will be pushed away from teaching.

International students prepare to return

University of Auckland student Elise Chow hoped to come back to New Zealand this week. She was at home in Hong Kong, which is so far not included in the restrictions on mainland China.

But there have been 56 coronavirus cases in Hong Kong. So she has been avoiding going out in public, wearing a face mask when she does, and was watching the updates on travel restrictions to New Zealand anxiously in case they are extended to Hong Kong.

Many of her friends had been delayed from travelling back to New Zealand to start their study, they kept in touch online, but her friends were very worried.

Chow hoped to finish her nutrition degree this year, and was paying rent on a flat in Auckland while she was away for the holidays.

"Personally I do feel worried and confused. I've been concerned about it. I want to come back before classes start."

Chow said because she's in her final year of her degree she can't just go elsewhere. If she is delayed from returning she will have to wait at home until the start of the next semester and delay her graduation plans, which would be "frustrating, but there's nothing much I can do about it".

How coronavirus could cost our universities and polytechs $100M
Photo credit: AFP.

The World Health Organisation has made it clear it does not support international travel restrictions, but does recommend screening for symptomatic patients, who can be isolated.

And China's consul general in Auckland, Ruan Ping, said the decision was disappointing, and bad for both countries.

But despite being among those who could bear the brunt, Chow felt differently; "I do understand it's fair for New Zealand - you guys want to protect the residents."

Advice for students issued

Advice for students about the travel restrictions is provided on the Immigration New Zealand and Universities of New Zealand websites, and health advice about the coronavirus is available through a dedicated New Zealand Healthline which is accessible to overseas callers.