Universities have asked the government to exempt thousands of Chinese students from its ban on foreign travellers from mainland China.
The government says the travel restriction aimed at stopping the spread of coronavirus (officially named Covid-19) has prevented 11,280 or 41 per cent of the Chinese students now due in New Zealand from travelling here.
Among those stuck in China were 6742 enrolled with universities (53 per cent of the total number of Chinese students enrolled with universities), 2225 school students (30 per cent of the school total) and 1128 polytechnic students (41 per cent of the polytechnic total).
The ban was introduced on February 2 for a period of 14 days. On Saturday Health Minister David Clark announced it would be extended for another eight days.
The director of Universities New Zealand, Chris Whelan, says the ban has disrupted the lives of the affected students and if it's not lifted the universities could lose about $170 million in fees.
"From our point of view it's extremely serious."
He says the universities have suggested the government waive the travel ban for students.
"We're currently discussing the idea of an exemption, so some students may be able to come to New Zealand even if there is a more general travel ban.
"We would be only doing that with the full support of the Ministry of Health and certainly observing any guidelines that they put around it. There are some challenges but we are hopeful we might be able to do something in that space."
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed the government is in discussions with the universities, but says nothing has been decided.
"The first thing we've done is say yes, their student visas will be still able to give them entry to the country later on - but universities have indicated to us that they have a particular window ... about April, that's the time by which they need their international students to start.
"We have had that request and - just for context - roughly 59 per cent of international students are already in the country so there are a portion that are here but a portion that are not.
"Public health is our number one priority here - there are a couple of things which make any exemptions tricky. Of course ... you'd basically have to be making these individualised decisions for what are thousands of visa holders, and that is quite a logistical exercise.
"Second is ... they have to be able to follow the quarantine ... universities have said that they believe they can follow the quarantine but there are other complicating factors as well."
Chris says the students could easily meet the Health Ministry's guidelines on self-isolation once they arrived.
He says the impact of losing first-year students could be felt for another four or five years.
"Typically students will be around three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years, depending on what sort of programme they're in so absolutely, any student that we lose this year it has a knock-on effect for at least the next three or four years."
Chris says he's not aware of any students cancelling their enrolment and in the meantime the Chinese government had given universities permission to teach their students online.
Ban not in line with WHO - Chinese consulate
A spokesperson for the Chinese consulate general in Auckland, Xiao Yewen, says the government should lift the travel ban, and not just for students.
"The key to solving this problem is to cancel the travel ban as soon as possible.
"This ban is not in line with the professional advice of the WHO.
"Very, very few countries have taken this kind of measure. The Chinese students will watch this situation."
Xiao says the consulate general had been in close contact with New Zealand universities and they had made a lot of effort to help their students.
"I think the universities have done their jobs and we highly appreciate that."
Education Minister Chris Hipkins says the government is reviewing the travel restrictions every 48 hours and would lift them as soon as it could.
However, Chris says it's not considering making exemptions.
"That's not something that we've considered at this point, but we're going to be looking at all of the options to lessen the impact and to ensure that people aren't unduly disadvantaged by the travel restriction we've got in place at the moment."
Over-reliance on China
Universities have acknowledged the coronavirus crisis has highlighted their dependence on China as a source of foreign students.
In the last financial year, Chinese students provided about a third of New Zealand's 100,000 foreign students, one of the highest figures on record, and about half of the foreign students at universities.
Chris says universities have increasingly looked to foreign students to make up for a long-term real decline in per-student funding from the government.
"Eleven per cent of all the funding of universities now comes from international students and these are universities that generate generally [surpluses of] about three per cent a year so if we lost our international students tomorrow every university and in fact probably every tertiary provider would start generating losses as of tomorrow.
"Whether or not we want to be overly-reliant on China, we've had to accept that China is a huge and important market for us and take those students."
The president of the Tertiary Education Union, Michael Gilchrist, says it has warned for some time that tertiary institutions were relying too much on income from foreign students.
"There are real financial risks developing.
"We are lobbying strongly for the Tertiary Education Commission to provide some assurances of support for tertiary institutions."