By Katie Scotcher of RNZ

The University of Auckland is considering moving domestic students out of halls of residence to make way for returning international students that need to be quarantined.

Officials have signalled work is under way to allow foreign students to return to New Zealand, after Auckland Mayor Phil Goff asked the Government to allow the city to test-run a quarantine system that will allow students to enter the country.

Universities across the country saw their profits plummet in the early stages of the pandemic, as thousands of foreign students are stuck overseas. Foreign students are a $5 billion industry for New Zealand.

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If the proposal is given the green light, Goff said the students could arrive in a few months' time and give the city's economy a much-needed boost.

"What we don't want to do is sacrifice the gains we've made in being one of the most successful countries in the world in containing coronavirus.

"At the same time, we know we desperately need to generate economic recovery in the jobs to stop the serious hardship that many people will be finding as they lose their jobs because our income as a city and as a nation has gone down dramatically."

The University of Auckland said it is working with officials to figure out how international students could enter the country safely. It has sent a draft plan to Auckland Council on how this could work, a spokesperson said.

"Obviously this is in the early stages and theoretical until a decision is made about when international students are able to return. This will also be dependent on the provision of student visas, which can take months to process."

Goff said foreign students could be quarantined at university hostels.

"We would have separate hostels, or maybe using hotels with strict controls for 14 days ... and at the end of the 14 days, we could have confidence that these are people who will not be bringing Covid-19 into the country."

The University of Auckland has confirmed to RNZ it is considering moving domestic students out of halls to make way for international students who could be quarantined in university managed facilities.

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But it said it is still considering its options and no student will be left without accommodation.

Manukau Institute of Technology chief executive Gus Gilmore said he had also spoken to council officials about the possible return of international students.

The polytechnic usually had about 1000 foreign students, he said.

Allowing them to return to New Zealand would not only benefit the institute, but the whole country, Gilmore added.

"Given the shortages in the trades in New Zealand and, of course, Unitec and MIT are major suppliers of trained graduates."

Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said work was under way to allow international students to return.

"Anyone coming into the country needs to do so in a way that is complying with that 14-day quarantine, or managed self isolation, except on very rare circumstances where we can be very confident the risk is low.

"So yes, that does open up the option of international students coming into the country."

But when exactly foreign students will be able to travel to New Zealand is still unclear, many universities hope it will be in time for the second semester.

- RNZ