Just three years ago, international education was being trumpeted as New Zealand's fourth largest export earner, behind tourism, dairy and meat.
Like tourism, those export dollars are earned by people coming here to do things, rather than us sending things offshore to be consumed.
A 2017 Deloitte study put the ballpark value of having high school, polytech, private training establishment and university students come to study in New Zealand at $5.1 billion annually.
According to Education NZ, 117,248 international students studied in New Zealand in 2018. Of those, about 37,090 came from China, with about a third enrolling at universities.
Of that $5.1b estimated economic value from international education, about 30 per cent comes from university students, although they are not the largest student group by number. That's because their courses are more expensive and longer, as a rule, than other educational courses.
This year some 12,600 Chinese students have enrolled at New Zealand universities, but about 6500 of them are stuck in China because of the New Zealand Government's coronavirus travel ban, which came into force on February 2. At the time of writing, the ban continues to be extended despite the rate of new infections now starting to slow in China.
High school students are the next most valuable group, but they appear largely unaffected by the Covid-19 outbreak as secondary school starts earlier in the year than tertiary study and most Chinese high schoolers were here before the travel ban was imposed.
The next most-exposed to the student losses are, in order of financial impact, private training establishments (PTEs) and polytechs. Some PTEs may not survive the impact.
That is partly because the international education sector had already faced one major blow since that 2017 estimate of its value.
That was the impact on Indian student enrolments of immigration policy changes and concerns about low quality courses at some PTEs. The number of Indian students coming to study here since the middle of the decade has collapsed, except in the university sector.
Indian students enrolling with PTEs peaked at 12,830 in 2015 and had plunged to 3920 by 2018, according to the most recently published official statistics.
Now, the coronavirus/Covid-19 outbreak looks almost certain to prevent about half of this year's intake of Chinese students — by far New Zealand's largest and most valuable source of international students — from studying here this year.
Close observers of the sector believe international education may now be worth barely $3b a year to New Zealand. That is a huge economic impact to bear in one sector of the economy and, for the universities, an important loss of income that subsidises the quality of their offering to New Zealand students.
As this column was being written, there was a slim but rapidly shrinking chance that most of the stranded Chinese university students might be allowed to travel to New Zealand under a temporary relaxation of the travel ban.
A few hundred students living in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, would be excluded altogether. But students in other parts of China, where the outbreak is so far mild and the risk of infection very low, might reasonably be able to travel here.
Or so the argument went until this week.
Unfortunately for the universities, there has been a sudden and dramatic divergence between what might be reasonable and what is politically possible.
A travel ban exemption that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern raised as a credible possibility on Monday afternoon this week was, by Thursday, a far more difficult proposition.
The Universities New Zealand spokesman on international students, Professor Grant Guilford, was hoping for a decision yesterday from the New Zealand Government. Even a delay until next Monday's Cabinet meeting would make it touch and go as to whether universities could get their students to New Zealand, put them through an isolation process, and get them into first semester studies, he told BusinessDesk.
It had been hoped a breakthrough might occur during the bilateral meeting between Ardern and her Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, who met yesterday after the Australian Cabinet considered relaxing its ban on travel by high-school students on Thursday.
However, the sharp deterioration in global sentiment complicated the political calculus.
Morrison cannot afford a second version of his tin-eared response to the Australian bushfires and is cautious, while New Zealand has so far acted in lockstep with Australia in its border control responses.
The growing likelihood is that both countries would rather risk the wrath of the Chinese Government, which feels its citizens have been unfairly singled out for a travel ban that goes beyond the advice of the World Health Organisation, than the wrath of their own fearful citizens.
If so, universities will be picking up a substantial tab.
Wellington's Victoria University, where Guilford is vice-chancellor, is forecasting a $12 million direct hit to annual revenues if students are unable to start study soon. At the University of Auckland — where the largest number of Chinese students enrol each year — a hiring freeze was announced on Thursday in response to the expected financial impact of the travel ban.
Of course, there would be big costs too if the students were allowed to travel. The universities have been moving heaven and earth behind the scenes to make it possible for their Chinese students to get to New Zealand if at all possible.
A taskforce has already spent weeks planning how to greet and monitor students to ensure they comply with self-isolation protocols — a large enough task in itself — on the presumption that it would be discriminatory to treat Chinese students differently from Kiwis returning home from China.
However, when Covid-19 started turning up in numerous other countries this week, sparking turmoil on global financial markets, that plan went out the window.
Recognising that the political, if not scientific, ground had shifted, the universities accepted their Chinese students would have to be quarantined in a way similar to the New Zealanders who were evacuated earlier this month from Wuhan.
Universities have spent this week scouring the country for spare hotel beds, hostels, army and police barracks, and other places where arriving students could be isolated en masse.
Part of the reason for being willing to go this extra mile is self-preservation. The universities are determined to demonstrate to the Chinese authorities that they will leave no stone unturned to try to preserve the educational opportunity that Chinese parents have invested so much to create for their, often, only child.
Unless they are seen to do so, the universities fear their sector will be punished by the Chinese Government in response to New Zealand and Australian Government actions over which they have no control.