Letting 250 international PhD and postgraduate students back into the country has been welcomed as an important first step by the cash hungry education sector, but universities admit they still don't know how many will take up the initial offer.

RNZ spoke to one student who said the high cost of getting here and a risk of Covid-19 infection during travel would keep him in the United States for a bit longer.

Ali Khan is a doctoral candidate researching Human Rights Act and its influence on long-term employment at the University of Otago and the Victoria University of Wellington.

Having been stranded in the US since January, he said it was a good sign.

Ali Khan, a PhD student at the University of Otago but has been stuck in the US since early this year, calls for the government to treat PhD students and doctoral candidates as essential workers and allow them back for research.

Ali Khan. Photo: Supplied

"I think it's a great idea. I think it's wonderful that New Zealand is honouring its commitment to students. It's also in line with Europe, United States, as well as China, Japan and [South] Korea."

Anyone suspected of having an infectious or quarantinable disease in New Zealand gets free health care, according to the Ministry of Health (MoH), but Khan said even that's not enough to encourage him to return.

"As a student, there's a couple of things we have to think about, one is the cost and number two I would have to say safety as well in terms of pandemic."

A returning flight would cost at least three times the normal price, and then you add on a $3100 isolation fee - and the multiple transfers through different countries also heightened the risk of infection, Khan said.

Universities New Zealand chief executive Chris Whelan said providers were reaching out to PhD students who have to be in the country to progress their studies.

He said not that many PhD students were already enrolled and held a current visa to come and study this year.

"It's a reasonably small number too. It's about 300 or 400 students and we're seeing, are there enough of those students to make up the initial 250 places."

If the slots can't be filled up by PhD students, they will go to master students. Whelan said they would only find out how many students were interested in coming back early next month.

"We know there're about 5000 students that are still enrolled to study at New Zealand universities offshore. We can't bring in all of them. They had to start somewhere and international PhDs were seen as being a logical first group to bring in and we hope to expand it out to other groups soon."

Whelan also recognised the cost to students and said universities were going to help.

"There will be some additional fees for them, particularly the cost of managed isolation and quarantine facilities, where the government has a charge of $3100 per student. Universities are going to contribute to that and cover half of that cost for the students that are able to come back in this particular tranche."

Johnnie Wang, an international student in Auckland and a council member of the University of Auckland, said the plan should be expanded in the future, and countries where the Covid-19 rates were low should be prioritised.

Johnnie Wang, a PhD student from University of Auckland, says not allowing students in will not only damage the country’s economy but also its academic future.

Johnnie Wang. Photo: Supplied

"From the perspective of public health and safety, I also hope that students from low-risk areas can be considered first, depending on how well Covid is under control in each country and area."

Wang pointed out that temporary visa holders who normally lived in New Zealand but left the country before 19 March don't have to pay for isolation.

He said international students who left the country before that date should also have the fee waived.


https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/428905/universities-unsure-how-many-international-students-will-take-up-offer-to-come-to-nz