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New Zealand's borders are currently closed to all foreign travellers coming from mainland China, but universities want an exemption for tertiary students.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday signalled she was open to the idea, but only if the public could be assured of their safety.
Speaking to RNZ, Victoria University vice-chancellor Grant Guilford said he had "no doubt" the universities could manage the risk.
"We are very confident we've got this one. We've got the protocols in place and can manage it all."
Guilford - who spearheads the Universities NZ committee on international policy - said the sector was proposing that foreign students be treated in the same way as returning New Zealand citizens and be required to self-isolate for 14 days after arrival.
"There's a risk of discrimination if we require more of a Chinese student than we require of our own residents. We do need to be very careful about getting too extreme in these requirements."
An estimated 6000 students were believed to be stuck in China, of which about 2000 were first-year students, he said.
Guilford said the likelihood of them being affected by the coronavirus and bringing it to New Zealand was "vanishingly small".
But in order to ensure people's safety and allay their concerns, the universities were proposing the exemption apply only to students outside of Hubei province where the virus originated.
Students would be met by campus staff at the airport and informed of the self-isolation requirements.
They would then be taken to their accommodation - whether that be with extended family, homestays or small university-provided units.
"We're not talking about finding an army base in the back-and-beyond and chucking them into that," Guilford said.
International students did not usually stay in the large hostels, but those would be avoided as an accommodation option, he said.
Universities would check in with the students on a daily basis and conduct a health check at the end of the fortnight.
"We're also very open to audit of this by the public health authorities within the region - and I think that would be a fair thing for the government to expect of us."
Millions on the line, university leader says
Guilford said it was critical that New Zealand get the decision right - and quickly - as hundreds of millions of dollars were on the line for the country.
"Fundamentally, it goes to a matter of trust between China and New Zealand - and if we blow this one, don't treat these young people well, the damage extends well beyond to every other sector that has anything to do with China."
If China pulled its support for New Zealand as a study destination, its young people would simply go elsewhere, he said.
"They [will] enrol in Canada or the UK which did not put a travel ban in place and have made sure the students in China are very aware of that."
Guilford said the government would be acting out of fear, rather than evidence, if it refused to relax the travel ban.
"There is no doubt based on the evidence that this can be managed, but of course, we are in a highly political environment and we've got people's understandable anxieties to take into account."
Ardern outlines exemption requirements
Speaking at her weekly press conference yesterday, Ardern outlined the key condition for any exemption.
"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."
The travel restrictions are reviewed every 48 hours, but any exemption would need sign-off from Cabinet, meaning a breakthrough is unlikely before Monday.