By John Gerritsen of RNZ

The University of Auckland has frozen all new staff appointments because of the financial cost of the Covid-19 travel ban, with more than $30 million in revenue at risk.

Vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon told staff in a message today that about 2000 of its Chinese students could not fly to New Zealand because of the ban on travellers who had been in mainland China in the past 14 days.

McCutcheon said it was not clear when the students would be allowed to enter New Zealand, and the delay put more than $30 million of first-semester revenue at risk.

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"Accordingly, it will be necessary for us to do everything we can to limit expenditure. Our main expenditure item is staff. I am therefore instituting an immediate freeze on the hiring of staff to make sure that we can maintain the financial stability of the University," he said in the message.

"I very much regret the need to take this step, particularly as I am conscious of the fact that the travel ban is placing an additional burden on many of our staff. However, the government decision to prevent our students travelling to New Zealand has placed us in a very difficult and uncertain situation, and poses a significant risk to the financial health of the University."

McCutcheon noted that while travellers from China were prevented from flying directly to New Zealand, "thousands of New Zealanders, Australians and their dependents have been permitted to return from China subject to a short period of quarantine".

In a statement released to RNZ he said the ban could damage New Zealand's relationship with China.

"Many of our students are the single child of families who are not well off and who have scrimped together the resources needed to send them here in order to secure their own future and the future of their family in a country that has only modest social welfare support," he said.

"Years of building relationships with those students, their families, and their country are now at risk, as are New Zealand's relationships with China more generally. It is to be hoped that the government will soon relax the travel ban so that we can welcome our 2000 students to the University and fulfil our undertaking to deliver them a high quality education."

University of Auckland is the single-largest enroller of foreign students in New Zealand, with about 5000 full-time equivalent international students, many of them from China.

Victoria University vice-chancellor Grant Guilford wrote to his staff yesterday, warning that universities faced a grave situation if the ban was not lifted "in the next day or two".

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Professor Stuart McCutcheon told staff that about 2000 of its Chinese students could not fly to New Zealand because of the travel ban. Photo / File
Professor Stuart McCutcheon told staff that about 2000 of its Chinese students could not fly to New Zealand because of the travel ban. Photo / File

"Preliminary estimates suggest we can expect losses here of as much as $12 million this year," he said, adding that the financial impact of lost enrolments would continue in 2021 and 2022 and would require cost cuts.

"It is sobering to recall that the last time New Zealand lost the trust of Chinese parents (as a result of the collapse of two private training establishments in the mid-2000s) it took a decade for our tertiary education sector to regain that trust," Guilford wrote.

He said universities had provided the government with assurances they could manage the arrival of Chinese students if the travel ban was relaxed or lifted altogether.

"Unfortunately, the window of opportunity for our Chinese students to continue their studies is rapidly closing. They and their parents are wrestling with enormous uncertainty and I very much appreciate the energetic and empathetic way in which so many of you have worked to find educationally sound solutions to the problems created by the delayed start dates," he said.

Government figures show more than 11,000 Chinese students are unable to travel to New Zealand from China because of the travel ban, and more than 6000 of those students are enrolled in universities.

Universities New Zealand had called on the government to make an exemption for students so that they can begin their studies.

-RNZ