Coronavirus: Sir John Key says Government should 'trial' return of international students to help post-COVID recovery

Sir John Key has called for international students to be allowed back into New Zealand, suggesting a trial could kickstart their gradual return. 

Speaking to reporters following his keynote speech at the COVID-19 crisis summit in Auckland on Wednesday, the former Prime Minister noted the influx of revenue the return of international students would bring to the country during its economic recovery. 

Statistics New Zealand estimated international students who studied for 12 months or less spent $3.9 billion in the year to March 2019, according to a report released by leading New Zealand economist Eric Crampton in May.

"If you think about our education sector [nationwide], there's a big revenue flow from international students. I think we can turn that tap back on quite successfully," he said.

"For [places] like Auckland University, AUT, Massey, they rely enormously on foreign students - that would be a lifeline for them."

In June, Universities New Zealand issued a plea to the Government  to reopen the border to foreign students, claiming they were staring down the barrel of a $400 million loss if pupils didn't return in time for the second semester - which is now underway.

Key argued that universities could be responsible for quarantining international students upon arrival, in the same vein as the 32 managed isolation facilities quarantining returned New Zealanders for their 14-day mandatory isolation period.

Universities have made multiple appeals to the Govt to allow international students back in.
Universities have made multiple appeals to the Govt to allow international students back in. Photo credit: Getty

"We clearly don't want community transmission, but in the same way we welcome New Zealanders who are returning from overseas, appropriately putting them in quarantine for 14 days and testing them - certainly the universities have the capacity to do that," Key said.

"I think we should allow them to bring foreign students in, I think they should be responsible for that quarantining."

Universities NZ has previously argued that hostels could be used to accommodate and monitor foreign students if they were permitted to return, while Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope has also argued "universities could properly quarantine people".

Key expressed his belief that "if we have to live with COVID-19 for a long time", authorities should be focusing on what can be permitted under the current alert level 1 framework.

He suggested a trial group of international students might build confidence in reintroducing foreign pupils on a larger scale.

"Start with a couple of hundred students and go from there as you build your confidence levels," he said, noting universities would potentially need to operate under a stricter testing and quarantine regime to ensure the safe reintroduction of students.

John Key suggested a trial of international students might be the best option to kickstart their possible return.
John Key suggested a trial of international students might be the best option to kickstart their possible return. Photo credit: Newshub

In July, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said it was "much more likely" that international students would return in 2021 than at any point this year.

Last month, Health Minister Chris Hipkins also refuted the possibility of international students returning, arguing that the country doesn't have the quarantine capacity.

"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.

International students pay roughly $24,000 per year for tertiary tuition, while domestic students pay $7000 on average. Speaking to The AM Show in May, Crampton said universities would have no problem funding the two-week quarantine period if it meant overseas pupils were able to resume their studies.

"I think the universities would be very happy to pay for it themselves out of the fees that are charged... so long as quarantine can be set up on a 'user pays' basis, why limit it? So long as facilities can be proven safe and they're monitored, with a penalty of deportation for breaches of quarantine to keep everyone safe... of course it should be 'user pays'," he said.

Following Wednesday's Auckland's Future, Now event, Key also expressed opposition to the foreign buyers' ban on housing, arguing it "doesn't make sense" during New Zealand's post-COVID recovery.

"If someone from the US, who is currently looking at pitches from New Zealand of a COVID-free environment, says - "I want to build a $10 million beach house here" - why wouldn't we want that?" he said.

"That is going to allow literally hundreds and thousands of tradies to potentially have a job. Why wouldn't we speed up the consenting process for instance through council for that to occur? All these things are about what is possible... we need to change our thinking."