Thousands of students aren't sure if they will make it to class on time because of travel restrictions in response to the coronavirus, and universities and polytechnics stand to lose more than $100 million if the restrictions continue, a sector spokesmperson warns.

Health minister David Clark has extended a ban on foreigners entering the country if they are coming from or through mainland China, until February 24. Though this is being reviewed every two days.

The travel ban will throw many students' plans into disarray. Some polytech courses have already begun, and some universities start their first semester on Monday.


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Latest figures (from 2018) show 18 percent of university enrolments were international students - and Chinese students made up almost 50 percent of those.

Even if there are no further extensions to the travel ban, it's likely some students will have changed their plans to study here, Tertiary Education Union president Michael Gilchrist said. And if the restrictions continue he's worried the impact will be significant.

Gilchrist said the potential damage would be worse because it comes on the back of visa tightening and processing delays last year, which the TEU estimates cost tertiary institutes between $100 and $120 million - and if the travel restrictions are extended he warned there could be similar losses this year.

"We have become over-reliant financially, on international students in general, and Chinese students in particular; Chinese students make up a significant proportion of the expected income of some universities and polytechnics."

The TEU blames decades of government underfunding for forcing the tertiary sector to depend on lucrative foreign fees.

International student fees should be seen as the cherry on top, not the bread and butter institutions must rely on to get by - precisely because it exposes universities and polytechs to market wobbles like this, Gilchrist has been saying for some time.

Arrivals at Auckland International Airport. Photo / RNZ
Arrivals at Auckland International Airport. Photo / RNZ