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The University of Otago says it is now prepared to take in students from China as universities plead with the Government for an exemption to the coronavirus travel ban.
New Zealand’s borders are at present closed to all foreign travellers coming from mainland China, but universities want an exemption for tertiary students.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this week signalled she was open to the idea, but only if the public could be assured of their safety.
Prof Philip Hill, chairman of Otago University’s medical advisory group, which is part of its Covid-19 response, said about 200 of its students were still in China and unable to resume studies this week.
The university had worked closely with the Southern District Health Board, the Ministry of Health and its own experts and was ready to take in these students if the Government agreed to an exemption.
Many of the students from China who arrived before the travel ban was put in force had now left 14 days of self-isolation and the university was "pleased with how this has been managed".
"We are now prepared to look after more students in self-isolation if the ban is lifted," Prof Hill said.
He said that the university was concerned about the academic effect on the students who were still in China.
"We are looking at a range of alternative study options, including deferred start dates and, where possible, learning from a distance."
While many universities had brought up the possibility of massive financial consequences if no exemption was made, an Otago University spokeswoman said the situation was not "disastrous" for the university.
The university was insulated from the financial impact because of its policy of capping international student enrolments to no more than 15% of the total role, and no more than a quarter of international students from any one country.
Speaking to RNZ, Victoria University vice-chancellor Grant Guilford said he had "no doubt" the universities could manage the risk if an exemption was made.
The New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations has published an open letter to the Prime Minister, Health Minister and Education Minister, protesting the restrictions which bar foreign travellers arriving from mainland China.
In the letter published online, NZUSA president Isabella Lenihan-Ikin said students wanted the ban scrapped altogether, and an exemption only the"minimum" response.
"While we recognise the need to prioritise public health and safety, this travel ban is an unreasonable and unempathetic response," she said.
"It fails to consider the impact on international students and staff travelling from or through China, in light of minimal public health risk."
The restrictions were at odds with World Health Organisation advice and had fed racism and xenophobia, Ms Lenihan-Ikin said. — Additional reporting RNZ