New Zealand's door has been opened to overseas students again - but only for 250 postgraduate students who will have to pay for their own quarantine.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins says the students must have had a visa to study in New Zealand at masters or doctoral level but were unable to get into the country when the border closed in March.
"These are students who hold or held a visa for 2020, and whose long-term commitment to study here was disrupted by Covid-19," he said.
"Priority will be given first to those who need to be in the country for the practical components of their research and study.
"The first students are likely to arrive November 2020, with the majority arriving in the new year."
They will be subject to the same two-week quarantine requirements as returning New Zealanders and a select group of "critical workers".
The Ministry of Education says they "will be required to pre-book a space in a managed isolation and quarantine facility prior to travel".
"Everyone entering New Zealand on a border exception, including international students, will have to pay charges for managed isolation," it says.
Priority will be given to students who:
• are enrolled in PhD programmes;
• are enrolled in a qualification that involves practical components (for example, medicine, veterinary, engineering, laboratory sciences, agricultural research);
• cannot progress or complete their study while offshore.
"If the 250 places are not filled by PhD students in these priority categories, the focus is likely to move to level 9 masters students in the same priority categories," the ministry says.
The concession is a tiny first step towards restoring the country's $5 billion international education market. The first 250 students represent about one-fifth of 1 per cent of the 117,000 foreign students who normally come to New Zealand each year.
"I acknowledge that other international education providers, such as schools and private training establishments, will be disappointed that their students are not a part of this border exception group," Hipkins said.
"Our approach is pragmatic and allows us to carefully manage the demand on our quarantine facilities and the complex nature of bringing students back into the country.
"Allowing these students to travel to New Zealand is a step in the right direction for the international education sector. The Government will review other possible border exceptions, as and when it is safe to do so."
He said the health, safety and wellbeing of people in New Zealand remained the Government's top priority.
"Tight border restrictions remain critical to protecting New Zealanders against Covid-19 and ensuring that Kiwis can return home," he said.
"There are many calls on the Government to grant exceptions. So far around 10,400 exceptions have been granted for people such as essential health workers, other critical workers and family of New Zealand citizens or permanent residents.
"Just last month, new exceptions were announced for some normally resident temporary visa holders, more partners of New Zealanders, and a limited number of veterinarians, deep-water fishing crew and agricultural and horticultural mobile plant operators.
"The exception today is a balanced decision that recognises the vital role international education will play in the recovery and rebuild of New Zealand and the need to continue the fight against the pandemic. It will enable us to welcome back a good portion of those PhD and Masters students who are caught offshore, and who need to be in New Zealand to complete their work."
He said international PhDs and other postgraduate students "make a significant contribution to our research and innovation systems and boost the global reputations and competitiveness of our institution".
The Ministry of Education will now contact Tertiary Education Organisations to work through student identification and selection. Students with questions about this process should contact their providers in the first instance.
Universities NZ and Education NZ both welcomed the move and looked forward to extending it.
Universities NZ chief executive Chris Whelan said: "We look forward to extending this as soon as possible to all our international students who remain overseas."
Education NZ chief executive Grant McPherson said: "We look forward to the possibility of further border exceptions, that will benefit as many providers and students as possible, as and when it is safe to do so."
National Party leader Judith Collins said earlier today that a National government would offer 200 scholarships worth $50,000 each to doctoral students from overseas in science, technology, engineering and maths.
"We are encouraging global talent to engage and connect with our business community. We hope to establish strong cultural and professional ties with the world's best and brightest," she said.
"Our tech sector has amazing potential. If we attract the right talent and create an environment for growth then our tech sector will fuel our economy for years to come."