Chinese students with coronavirus masks at a train station. But will they come to NZ?(Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Time is running out to save New Zealand’s Chinese university education market.

Universities have begun their orientation weeks this week, and there is still no definitive news on when the Government might relax the ban on Chinese students entering New Zealand.

It is believed that some 40 per cent of the 12,300 students are not in the country.

With lectures due to start next week and the reality that it will take three or four weeks for students to confirm their travel arrangements and arrive here, there are concerns that many may be on the brink of pulling out of coming to New Zealand.

The chair of the International Committee of Universities New Zealand and Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University of Wellington, Grant Guilford, says the ban is being seen by the Chinese as a betrayal of trust.

“These families made this very big decision, and they chose this country for a lot of reasons; a quality education, the safety and security and our reputation for quality education, and that we are a reliable country,” he told POLITIK.

“But we have let them down, and so they’re angry, they’re frustrated, and they’re frightened for their children.

The Universities had been hoping for a relaxation yesterday and are now looking to Thursday when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is to meet her Australian counterpart, Scot Morrison.

On Friday the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) said if case numbers did not show a material increase over the next seven days, in provinces outside of Hubei, “there is a case for government to consider, at that time, a temporary relaxation of the travel restrictions to allow entry to a larger number of tertiary students.”

There are suggestions that Australia could relax its student ban next Saturday.

What this underlines is how much the New Zealand ban is a consequence of the free movement of people between Australia and New Zealand.

The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, would go only as far yesterday as to say officials were investigating relaxing the travel ban on Chinese students except for those from Hubei province.

Officials are now looking at what a targeted exemption might look like,” she told her weekly press conference.

“We would need to be satisfied that any health risk could be practically managed with the education sector able to reassure us and the public that it has credible self-isolation and accommodation plans in place, supported by an extensive plan and communicating that to those who would intend to travel. “

Nevertheless, New Zealand has moved in synch with Australia throughout the coronavirus crisis.

Australia imposed its travel ban on February 1; and though China’s consul general in Auckland, Ruan Ping, told Radio NZ that Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters had previously assured the Chinese Government that New Zealand would “maintain normal exchanges and people flow between the two countries, New Zealand imposed its ban one day after Australia.

The Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, said that the Ministry of Health had had “close discussions with our colleagues in Australia” before it recommended the China travel ban top the Cabinet.

And the Prime Minister agreed yesterday that what is, in effect, a common border between the two countries was a major factor in New Zealand implementing the ban.

“There is a practical reality that yes there is a lot of movement between our two nations that if we have differences in what we’re doing at the border, it does complicate things,” she said.

“But we are making our own decisions; hopefully, because we are basing them on the same advice (as Australia), we’re reaching the same conclusion.”

But the problem with implementing a joint policy with Australia towards China is that New Zealand has a very different relationship with China to Australia.

There is little doubt that the Chinese diplomats in New Zealand have been surprised by the New Zealand travel ban.

Guilford believes that if it continues beyond this week, it has the potential to harm New Zealand’s whole relationship with China.

Chinese students are worth $300 million to the country’s universities in fees, but Guildford says their additional worth to the wider economy is probably twice as much as that.

“That’s huge, but that will pale into insignificance if we poison the entire relationship with China by treating these kids poorly and that is where the real risk is,” he said.

“This goes beyond the education sector into the wider trading relationship and the diplomatic relationship with China. “

That was the clear  warning of the Chinese Ambassador, Wu Xi, last week when she quoted a Chinese proverb, “when in prosperity, friends know us, and in adversity, we know our friends.”

The Prime Minister said she had spoken with the Ambassador.

“We absolutely can hear the statements that have been made,” she said.

“We’ve been very open about our rationale and our reasoning, which is public health.

“I have spoken openly with the Ambassador about that.

“ And we both shared our views recently at an event held here in Parliament.  (Chinese New year celebrations, last week)

“And it was incredibly cordial.

“Ultimately, for me, the overriding message to China is that during this incredibly difficult time, of course, we want to ensure that the people of China know that New Zealand really feels for the experience that they are having.

“This is directly affecting the health of their population, and that can’t be lost in all of this.”

Asked if New Zealand’s response had been an over-reaction, she said: “We based our decision based on the public health advice from officials and the Chief Science Advisor, and we are comfortable with that

“We understand the concerns that have been raised, but we have to make these decisions based on the advice that we receive.”

But two of New Zealand’s biggest competitors in providing education for Chinese students; Canada and the United Kingdom, have not implemented a travel ban.

Guilford worries that could see students divert from New Zealand to those countries.

They’re saying things like we’re open for business and we may or may not hold onto these students; time will tell,” he said.

“It is a question of trust that goes beyond us in the education sector to us a nation.

“And it’s exacerbated by the stigmatisation of travel ban.

“Stories like people not wanting to sit beside New Zealand Asians on plane remind China of the problems we have had as a People with Chinese over our history

“It’s a, very high stakes situation.”

Some hint of how high those stakes might be came with the revelation yesterday that the 24-agency Committee set up by Treasury to monitor the economic impact as prepared three scenarios including a worst-case

The first scenario assumes a short sharp dip in economic activity with a pick up beginning in the second quarter.

But Robertson said the others assumed a deeper impact.

“The second scenario is based on a longer-lasting shock to the domestic economy as the global impact feeds through to the economy for a longer period of time,” he said.

“The third scenario is planning for how to respond to a global economic recession if the worst-case scenario plays out.

“If either of these latter scenarios plays out, it will be important for the Government to play a role to invest in the economy, to support New Zealanders and Kiwi businesses through the impacts of rhinovirus.

“That’s why I’ve already directed the Treasury to begin work on the possible interventions and policies that would support New Zealanders and their businesses through these scenarios.”

That’s the first admission from the Government that coronavirus could be much more than a three-monthly thing.

And as the students’ crisis shows, the possibility that the virus could do substantial long term damage to the New Zealand economy remains a real possibility.

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