The international education industry is worth NZ$5 billion to the economy, and the higher education sector has been lobbying the government for the quarantined return of students for several months.

“Our focus should be on doing that in the new academic year rather than this one”

Speaking on NewstalkZB radio, Jacinda Ardern said she would “look at what we can learn” from the Australian pilot scheme, but echoing the words of finance minister Grant Robertson, said her government’s position was that international students would not be let in until 2021.

“We haven’t ruled out a system in the future where we manage potentially international students even if they are in separate bespoke quarantine facilities,” Ardern said.

“We have said, though, that our focus should be on doing that in the new academic year rather than this one, given the work it would need to go into doing that properly.”

The prime minister also highlighted that the Australian pilot scheme was for “quite a small number” of international students.

“We’re saying that that’s something that we would look to in the new year, it’s not something we believe that we should be doing at this point in time because actually most of our demand is still going to make sure our system is right for [returning] New Zealanders.”

Last month the NZ government announced among the measures in its long-term strategic recovery plan $51.6 million for the stabilisation of the international education sector.

However, while New Zealand’s eight universities are expecting a 10% increase in domestic students next year, stakeholders have warned that this will “not be anywhere near enough” to make up for predicted losses in revenue due to a fall in international student numbers.

In recent weeks, Universities New Zealand director Chris Whelan said his organisation recognised it was going to take time to develop a credible plan to bring back students.

“There’s a lot of pressure and need from both students and New Zealand community itself. It’s a $5 billion-a-year industry. It creates tens of thousands of jobs in this country.

“So getting it restarted is important for New Zealand but getting it restarted safely is also important,” he added.

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