A plan is underway to have charter flights bring thousands of Chinese international students back to New Zealand - but this can only go ahead if it gets a nod from the Government.

The travel ban put in place in February to stop the spread of Covid-19 has prevented more than 11,000 Chinese students who had been due back for their studies from travelling here.

John Chisholm, a businessman in the educational book industry, has been in talks with Air New Zealand with charter flights booked to bring students back by July in time for the start of the second semester at universities.

John Chisholm, director of Campus Books, is trying to plan an Air NZ charter flight to bring international students stuck in China back to NZ. Photo / Dean Purcell
John Chisholm, director of Campus Books, is trying to plan an Air NZ charter flight to bring international students stuck in China back to NZ. Photo / Dean Purcell

But Education Minister Chris Hipkins, while acknowledging the challenges the education sector is facing, said any changes is still some time away.


More than half of those stuck in China, or about 6700, are enrolled with universities, 2200 are school students and 1100 are with polytechnics.

"We have been in talks with Air New Zealand to charter an aircraft to fly students from Shanghai to Auckland, and this can happen very quickly if we can get Government approval and clear instructions on immigration and quarantine protocols," Chisholm said.

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Without these international students, universities stood to lose upwards of $170 million in fees.

Chisholm, director of Campus Books, said like universities and many other education providers here, his business - which publishes, sells and distributes educational books - was also reliant on international students to make a profit.

"At this stage, once we get the appropriate guidelines from the Government, and in conjunction with Air NZ, we believe we have the processes in place to bring these students safely back to New Zealand," he said.

Chisholm said the students could easily meet the Health Ministry's guidelines on managed isolation once they arrived and be put either in hotels or in residences of universities or their tertiary institutions.

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His team will also organise ongoing medical checks and supervision of the students until such time they are cleared to return to their classes.


Chisholm, who was a former trustee on Auckland Grammar School's board, expects the total cost to be about $5000 per student.

In a letter to the education minister, Chisholm said a number of his clients who relied on international students for their financial performance had turned to him to provide a solution to enable these students to return to NZ.

"It is expected that both schools and universities will operate under level 2, and thus there is a sense of urgency to commence flights in mid-June, and then with quarantine/isolation of 14 days, this allows the student to commence Term 3 in mid-July," he said in the letter.

Chisholm said he has not heard back from Hipkins.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government was balancing the need to get the economy moving again with protecting New Zealanders and ensuring the health system is not overwhelmed.

"We are acutely aware of the challenges the international education sector is facing. It remains important that we offer a safe and high-quality experience to international students that supports their wellbeing," he said.

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

Providers and education agencies have started early conversation and planning about what the return of international students could potentially look like, he said.

"We need to see robust, hard quarantine plans from providers that satisfy our public health requirements before we partially open our borders to international students," Hipkins said.

"There is still a lot more work to do, and any changes is this space are still some time away."

An Immigration New Zealand spokeswoman said the NZ border remains closed to all but New Zealand citizens and residents.

"There are a limited number of exceptions for other travellers who should seek approval from Immigration New Zealand before travelling," she said.

"Student visa holders who are currently offshore are not exempt from the border restrictions and would need to meet the strict exception criteria to be able to travel to New Zealand, regardless of whether this was on a commercial or chartered flight."

She said any decisions on when to lift the border restrictions will be made by the Government.