By RNZ

Universities are warning staff cuts could be on the horizon as they grapple with the financial losses from the coronavirus travel ban.

Thousands of students due to begin their studies are still stuck in China, and the government has ruled out an exemption to allow them to travel here.

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Grant Guilford, who is Victoria University's vice-chancellor and chair of the Universities NZ international programme committee, said without an exemption there was a risk some students - particularly those just beginning their degrees - would simply opt to go elsewhere.

"A number of countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom haven't put in place a travel ban," he said.

"The world is open to these students, it's only a small number of countries like New Zealand who put the plan in place, so holding on to those students and hoping that they continue to study with us is one of the major jobs ahead of us now."

For students returning to continue or complete their qualifications, Guilford said their studies have been pushed back at least six months - and their graduations would be delayed.

That would be disappointing for them - and their families.

Victoria University vice-chancellor Grant Guilford. Photo / RNZ / Richard Tindiller
Victoria University vice-chancellor Grant Guilford. Photo / RNZ / Richard Tindiller

"These students are precious to Chinese mums and dads, just like our students in New Zealand are precious to our mums and dads. Anything that goes wrong with these young people and their study has a very negative impact on families in China and the sense of trust that China has as a whole with our nation."

Guilford warned that it would take years to rebuild that trust.

Added to that was the financial cost of the travel ban.

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The University of Auckland stands to lose about $35 million this semester, while for Victoria University the figure is about $12 million.

Both institutions have announced hiring freezes as they worked out how to rebalance their budgets, and they were not ruling out staff cuts down the track.

University of Auckland vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon said the situation was serious.

"$35 million of revenue is a significant number of staffing positions, so this is undoubtedly going to hurt the University of Auckland.

"It's going to hurt the other universities as well, and I would be very surprised if we do not see hiring freezes or a slowing on hiring becoming quite common across the university sector if this ban goes on much longer."

Chinese Students' Association president Summer Xia said students in China she was in contact with were extremely worried.

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"For university students, we are just young adults, probably some of them have just turned 18, so these sorts of uncertainties - not knowing when they will be able to come back, and not knowing what whether their grades will be affected and whether there will be graduation delays - have caused some serious mental stress on all of them."

Summer Xia, left, with members of the New Zealand Chinese Students' Association. Photo / RNZ
Summer Xia, left, with members of the New Zealand Chinese Students' Association. Photo / RNZ

Many universities were looking at online options so students could continue their studies from China.

But Xia said distance learning was quite different to going to lectures and tutorials, and asking questions in person.

"I hope the quality of the online learning won't affect students' ability to study, but we can't say that as a guarantee, that online learning will be definitely the same as attending lectures.

"I hope that won't affect the students' grades and I hope that even if it affects their grades, it won't cause any graduation delays for them, especially for the students who are in their final years."

New Zealand Union of Students' Associations president Isabella Lenihan-Ikin said that when students were allowed in to New Zealand, they should be given intensive catch-up support by their universities.

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She said the ongoing travel ban was unfair, and it was disappointing the government had not opted for an exemption.

The government's travel restrictions are being reviewed every 48 hours.