University leaders mounted a severe attack on the Government's Chinese travel ban, telling Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern the loss of international students risked thousands of jobs and was doing "incalculable" damage to New Zealand's relationship with China.
Since the Government imposed travel restrictions on mainland China at the end of January, New Zealand's universities have been open that the measures could do lasting damage to international student numbers and wipe out the projected surpluses across the sector.
A letter sent by Universities New Zealand on February 12, released under the Official Information Act, warned time was running out to get the fee paying students "on whom our financial viability and the employment of thousands of staff depends".
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The letter, signed by Victoria University vice-chancellor Grant Guilford and AUT vice chancellor Derek McCormack, went on to say the measures were discriminatory, would encourage travellers to lie, impede movement of medicine and stigmatised Asian-New Zealanders.
Chinese government officials had conveyed "extreme disappointment at this apparently discriminatory action from a country they had regarded as a friend," Guilford and McCormack wrote.
"It is doing incalculable damage to our export education sector, as well as to other export industries, and to our relationship with China."
The letter cites concerns about the loss of 12,000 students, which the sector claims contribute around $300 million in fees and contribute an additional $600m in other spending, on accommodation and other living expenses.
While Universities New Zealand acknowledged the day the letter was sent that figures showed around half the students had made it to New Zealand, meaning the hit to fees in 2020 was likely to be around $170m, Guilford continued to use the $300m claim as a "worst case scenario" for the sector two weeks later.
Guilford told the Weekend Herald that Chinese diplomats in Wellington raised reports that the New Zealand and Australian prime ministers had discussed the move and that health authorities had described it as an alignment with Australian measures.
"There was a strong view among diplomatic representatives that our country had instituted this on a political basis rather than a public health basis," Guilford said.
The universities had offered to undertake quarantine with oversight from the Ministry of Health officials, Guilford said, rather than travel bans which were not recommended by the World Health Organisation.
"That is the way we've handled these things in the past, it's the way we handled Sars, that's the way you avoid getting tangled up between different power blocs like Australia and the US and China, because you undertake your public health procedures according to the global authority, the World Health Organisation, on the evidence in front of you."
Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government knew the restrictions would have an impact on international education, especially the universities but there were wider public health considerations to make.
The Government considered giving an exemption for the Chinese students who were due to come to New Zealand, but decided the resources that would have been required to quarantine the students were too great.
"We did consider it, we actively worked with them, we actively explored that possibility. Not all universities wanted to do that," Hipkins said.
"Ultimately, when it came down to it, it would have put a lot of pressure on the public service and the health system when we needed them focused elsewhere."
Hipkins said the travel ban would have a financial impact on the universities but dismissed the idea that the sector's viability was in question.
"Universities are in a reasonably healthy cash position. They've all been running surpluses, they've all got reasonably good cash reserves or borrowing facilities.
"One of the reasons we ask them to run a surplus of around 3 per cent a year is so they are in a position to cope with a situation like this. This is the rainy day they're asked to prepare for."
While the Government was aware of China's disappointment, Hipkins said the education relationship was strong and would continue, he hoped.
"We have to do what's in the best public health interests of the people who are in New Zealand at this time, and that's what we're doing."
He denied the decision was effectively made in Australia.
"It was a decision that was made based on public health advice, sound public health advice. And if you look at the spread of coronavirus in New Zealand, five isolated examples, it's actually been a very effective measure."