Coronavirus: International students 'much more likely' to return to New Zealand in 2021 than this year - Grant Robertson

Foreign students are "much more likely" to return to New Zealand universities in 2021 than at any point this year thanks to COVID-19, the Finance Minister has admitted.

It comes just days after Universities NZ begged the Government to reopen the border to international students, saying they're staring down the barrel of a $400 million loss if they don't come back in time for the second semester of 2020.

Grant Robertson says he understands why tertiary institutions want the borders open, but "it's tough" to open them back up at the moment - especially given there's been a "greater than expected" flowback of Kiwis to New Zealand in recent months.

"As the rest of the world really grapples with further outbreaks, New Zealand continues to be seen as a bit of a safe haven - so we are getting a lot more people back," he told Magic Talk's Peter Williams on Thursday morning.

"In order to manage those people through quarantine and isolation in a way that gives New Zealanders confidence, we're going to control that pretty tightly… we've got to get the facilities available that are of the quality that gives New Zealanders reassurance.

"We are working with the international education sector on that. It would be great if we could do it this year, but I think it is much more likely to be from the beginning of 2021."

Earlier this week, Education Minister Chris Hipkins said New Zealand didn't have the capacity to quarantine all international students.

"That would put our COVID-free status, our very good progress around COVID-19 elimination, at real risk. We don't want to see COVID-19 across the border," he said.

But Universities NZ said it'd be "easy" to monitor students using hostels. Director Chris Whelan said universities could "provide 24-hour seven-day-a-week supervision".

"We know that there are other countries that are looking at reopening their borders. If we don't get our borders opened soon, we are going to just not see their students again and it's going to take us a long time to rebuild," Whelan said.

However Robertson says it's important to note that universities in New Zealand "have very strong balance sheets".

"We will certainly be looking towards them to carry some of the impact of [COVID-19]," he said.

"It's very variable in terms of its impacts - some universities are more exposed than others here. We'll work with them, but they are pretty sound financial organisations."

And he's optimistic students will be happy enough to come to New Zealand next year, provided quarantine and managed isolation facilities established by universities are up to the specifications.

The quandary of whether to reopen the border to international students has sparked major debate in New Zealand. Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope says we should already be able to host them.

"Our universities could properly quarantine people in New Zealand and we could get that part of our international economy going again. International education contributes a significant amount of money, some $5 billion a year," he said.

National leader Todd Muller has also been critical, earlier this week saying the Government's reluctance to reopen the borders to foreign students was an error of judgement.

"The idea that we can sit here at the bottom of the world with 20 percent of our exports off the table in terms of international students and tourism...  locked up to the rest of the world and waiting for a vaccine, I think is untenable as a long-term strategy," he told RNZ.