Tuesday 19 May 2020

Missing the boat

Grant Robertson thinks New Zealand could reopen to international education next year
Robertson said tourism and international education, two of the largest parts of the country’s services sector, were under “real strain”, but potential opportunities regarding international education could arise next year.
I hope we're not missing the boat. 

North American semesters have August (US) or September (Canada) start dates. Semesters run then until May or June. Students will typically have sorted out their next-year study options well before now, but with Covid on, everything's up in the air. 

But waiting until January means missing the cohort of students that lock in to North American options that are harder to exit mid-year. 

And waiting also misses those students that start looking around to see whether any international options are available for quality English-language instruction in the North American fall semester and see Australia gearing up. Being able to pick some of them up, before they lock into Australia, could matter - Australian universities generally outrank options here. 

I guess I'm just not understanding what the government is taking as the constraint against an earlier opening subject to very strict and rigorous quarantine and testing provisions for inbound students from places that are not Taiwan. 

Yet, if jobs are so important, why did Finance Minister Grant Robertson emphatically squash Education Minister Chris "Chippy" Hipkins' enthusiasm for reopening the country to international students a little over a week ago?

On the Wednesday of the week before last, Hipkins responded to some kite-flying on the issue by university representatives at the pandemic select committee by saying he would look at it "within 24 hours".

The news swept through the tertiary education sector like wildfire, producing a burst of optimism, not only from universities, but also polytechs and private training providers.

The latter two can accept intakes of students more regularly through the year than the universities.

Mark Rushworth, the chief executive at the country's largest private training establishment, UP Education, began talking to media immediately about the potential to bring students in as early as July or August.

Within hours, however, Robertson had hosed down such expectations, citing "next year" as the earliest the sector might see students return.
Smellie's sounding as frustrated as I am: 
And with a quarantine system now working well for returning New Zealanders, there is no logical reason not to treat fee-paying foreign students exactly the same way.

By all means, make them take more tests for Covid-19 before they leave their home country.

And hell! UP Education would happily pay the $3000 to $5000 the quarantine process would cost. That's also cashflow for local accommodation providers and caterers who are currently bleeding out for lack of custom.
He puts it up to four barriers: 
At play now in the policy discussion are four inter-related elements:

• Sequencing: It is completely unrealistic to imagine that international students from third countries will be allowed to start arriving here before the transtasman travel bubble is up and running. The earliest that can start, let alone be subject to a high level of confidence, is July.
But why? There's no logical necessity that trans-Tasman travel, without quarantine, be reopened before quarantined travel from other places. That makes us hostage to Australia's getting their case numbers down. 
• Progress against the virus: A revival of international education will only become viable if the current progress in New Zealand is maintained and there is no resurgence of Covid-19, either globally or in key countries of origin for international students — mainly in Asia.
There'd be no demand for study-abroad in New Zealand from overseas students if we lost the covid-free advantage. Agree. But Covid breaking out in other places makes study here more attractive. And if it's done with quarantine and testing, then it's kept safe. 
• Quality of educational offering: It seems the opportunity will be taken to rethink what kinds of international education providers are desired. Low-rent English language "academies", particularly in Auckland, have been hotbeds of unethical practice, shadow permanent migration scams, and exploitation by New Zealand-based employers of migrant students. There is no desire to facilitate the resurgence of that part of the international education sector.
That's an argument for Immigration NZ to start processing student visas for the universities first along with secondary schools, then for polytechs with degree options where there are either no associated work rights for incoming students or where those work rights are tied to a credible part of the programme of study or are part of homestay arrangements where students billet with families, providing childcare around study for room and board. Why hold everything up? 

UPDATE: to be *real* clear, I'm not here agreeing with the view around 'low-rent English language "academies"'. I haven't seen decent evidence on it. I'm saying that if that's your concern as government, then you could *at least* free things up for the sectors you're less worried about more quickly. All of the thinking in this space currently is going to be entirely messed up by lump-of-labour fallacies. 
• Labour market dynamics: A very large number of New Zealanders who had jobs pre-Covid are going to be looking for new ones very soon. Many of those unemployed will have worked in tourism and hospitality. The last thing the Government wants is for international students to return in numbers to become competitors for those jobs.
As above.
So, international education is more firmly on the Government's agenda than it may have appeared.

But it's complicated.
Meanwhile, the Universities are looking at job cuts. Here's AUT

I went through related issues in this week's column at the Stuff papers
Lifeboats are tricky things. If they are overburdened, they can tip and spill everyone out.

Even with lots of room for other passengers, hauling someone out of the water is precarious and may mean everyone drowns.

When you’re in a lifeboat, you have to be careful.

But is there any image more emblematic of the kind of thing New Zealand isn’t than a guy (and it’s almost always a guy), alone in a lifeboat, rowing furiously away from a sinking ship and ignoring everyone bobbing in the water around him?

It certainly isn’t a very nice picture.

Bigger lifeboats are much easier to row to safety when more people can help. Leaving them to drown, when they could be helping with the rowing, isn’t just nasty, it’s self-defeating – so long as there’s a way of safely pulling others onboard.

New Zealand is an awfully big lifeboat in some rather treacherous waters. Watching the coming tsunami of a terrible recession, this country could use all the help it can get. If a way was found to safely let others on board, shouldn’t it be followed?

It can be done. And it matters.

The first issue is safe entry. If there is no way of safely letting people on board, it matters less how much they could help.

And the first place to look is to neighbours that are as safe as New Zealand – other lifeboats. Boats that raft up together are more stable.

Compared with New Zealand, Taiwan has fewer active Covid-19 cases, a lower average daily case count, tight border controls and a stronger pandemic response system. Auckland has had more recent cases than Taipei. Sitting here in Wellington, an incoming flight from Auckland poses greater personal risk than an inbound flight from Taipei.

New Zealand could, unilaterally, decide to allow visitors from Taiwan – while maintaining the option of closing the border again should its conditions worsen.

But unless Taiwan is sufficiently comfortable with New Zealand’s pandemic response, returning visitors would face quarantine.

Hopefully, negotiations between New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan are underway to let these lifeboats raft up together. If that means some Taiwanese oversight of New Zealand’s tracking, tracing and testing systems, so much the better for New Zealand: it would be like inviting a lifeboat expert onboard to ensure everything’s in order as we raft up together.

It’s hard to argue against rafting up for stability; it’s entry into that set of rafted boats that’s more contentious. But it can be made safe.

Last week, Laurel Chor tweeted her experience of flying to Hong Kong from Paris via Heathrow. Arriving passengers filled in quarantine orders, health declarations, were issued tracking bracelets, and sat, with appropriate spacing, in a wide hall.

They underwent Covid-19 testing and waited for eight hours for the results before heading to two-weeks’ mandatory and monitored quarantine.

Safe entry is certainly possible. It is a hassle, and it would not be cheap. But inbound travellers from riskier places could bear that cost through a biosecurity levy. Mandatory quarantine would put off most casual tourists but others would join New Zealand’s lifeboat for a while to help with the rowing task ahead.

Two weeks ago, I argued for this kind of entry regime for international students. Last week’s Reserve Bank Analytical Note showed international students contribute 1.1 per cent towards New Zealand’s Gross Domestic Product. This takes into account their expenditures in the broader community. Rather than facing the prospect of bailing out the universities, the Government could allow overseas students to safely join this lifeboat and help row the boat faster.

This would not just help the universities, it would help the country. Substantial employment depends on those students’ contributions while staying here. And with a bit of marketing, New Zealand could attract top tier students who would rather not attend online classes at US universities.

The California State University system announced last week it would only have online instruction during this autumn semester. New Zealand can provide a far better university experience by letting them onto its lifeboat. But this requires speedy action to attract students who are already looking at August semester start dates in the US.

Many others could help with the rowing if a quarantine system was in place – from international film productions to international sporting leagues and more. Making the recession less bad helps this country while helping them. And it can be done safely.

It would be silly to be in a lifeboat, trying to outpace a coming tsunami, and leaving others to the waters when they could safely be brought onboard to help. The rowing job ahead is not a small one. 

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