Coronavirus: Phil Goff optimistic about Auckland University plan to bring back international students

Phil Goff.
Phil Goff. Photo credit: The AM Show

By Nita Blake-Persen for RNZ

Auckland Mayor Phil Goff is optimistic a pilot plan to bring 1200 international students back into the country could start early next year - but says safety must be paramount for it to work.

International students are worth $2.8 billion a year to Auckland's economy - that's cash the city desperately needs as the COVID shockwaves keep coming.

Goff wants the University of Auckland to be able to bring students back using their own hostel facilities for isolation, under a 'user pays' system.

Documents released to Checkpoint show a plan from Auckland University around the return of international students was forwarded onto government ministers by Goff back in May.

While the work was done before the Auckland August cluster, he was still hopeful the pilot could go ahead in 2021.

The plan allows Auckland University students who are enrolled in full-time study but stuck overseas to come back - however they have to test negative to COVID-19 before travelling.

When they arrive there will be strict protocols around transferring them from the airport to managed isolation facilities - which the university hopes will be its UniLodge Whitaker hostel.

The hostel can accommodate 1200 students and the management plan proposes four intakes each of 300 long-term students over a period of months.

The university wants to give priority to more than 1000 students in China, and offshore students who have deferred study.

Students would have exclusive use of self-contained studio rooms, so no sharing of cooking and bathroom facilities would be required.

The university would provide an initial 'starter pack' of food and supplies, with students subsequently making online food delivery orders themselves as required.

There would be round-the-clock security and health tests would be completed by the nurses every 48 hours - with screening questions and a temperature check.

If a student does get COVID-19 they would be moved to a low-level quarantine facility - also funded by them.

Goff said for the plan to work there would need to be absolute assurity that the students would not add to the risk of spreading COVID-19.

He said those students would need to meet the government's full quarantine standard, in a way that the risk of COVID-19 spreading would be eliminated - "not just minimalised".

But he notes that the plans timeline has changed in light of the Auckland August cluster.

"Probably premature at this point, but certainly for early next year - as hopefully the international pandemic passes its peak - and we improve our technique in terms of testing, in terms of tracing, and in terms of quarantine facilities."

While provisions are being made for pastoral care, the university expected the isolation process would differ from the general public in that students were choosing to isolate willingly - with a clear purpose for doing so.

New Zealand Chinese Students' Association president Summer Xia said she supported the plan, but was urging care to be taken with overseas students coming back into the country, as she said the government had done a great job so far.

She said there would be plenty of students willing to pay the estimated $6370 cost of the return package - as many were nervous about losing their visa pathways to work in New Zealand.

"For most of the students in their final years, they need to study in New Zealand for 30 weeks to apply for their open work visa.

"If they can't come back then they wouldn't be eligible to apply for that work visa, so basically they don't have any opportunity to stay here right after they graduate."

In a statement, Auckland University said it continued to work with the government to ensure that when the borders opened, it would be able to support safe entry into the country and university.

Health and Education Minister Chris Hipkins has not ruled out managing international students in separate bespoke quarantine facilities, but said the government's focus at the moment was dealing with the current resurgence and institutions should not expect international students to return this year.