By Guest Author 07/07/2020

Associate Professor Sara Walton

At the heart of the discussion on opening up our borders is the dichotomy of health and the economy – both of which are actually intertwined, like many things with our economy, as this epidemic has shown.

If we think about our country as a system, an open system deals with the ebbs and flows from the environment in which it operates while a closed shuts itself off. Open systems have feedback loops which cause amplifications of the activities within the system. It is understanding the issue of opening the borders using systemic and interdisciplinary thinking that is needed to assist in this difficult decision. That involves thinking about these feedback loops to be able to predict the plausible possibilities. Plus, developing thinking around plausible outcomes of potential future situations to sensitise us to the many things that might happen. This doesn’t mean just focusing only on everything that might go wrong but also identifying the potential opportunities for Aotearoa New Zealand too. 

For example, let’s think about letting in tertiary students for a 2021 start. International education is purported to contribute approximately $4.5 billion annually to our economy and is our fifth largest expert earner. It is a highly skilled industry operating in a global marketplace with NZ Universities placing highly in global university rankings. The reputation of New Zealand being ‘safe’ due to our Covid-19 response is something that will help market New Zealand to overseas students. For a February 2021 start, we need to be planning now. Quarantining the students for 14 days is realistic given the amount of time they will be in the country to study. However, there are many questions. Who pays for the quarantine? Who monitors the procedures? Who supplies the medical tests and treatments? Where do we quarantine them? Let’s put these into a scenario. 

Early January 2021, Aotearoa NZ starts the process of allowing international tertiary students to enter the country. A strict quarantine period of 14 days must be adhered to. Each university must choose a number of appropriate facilities – e.g. halls of residence – to receive these international students for quarantine. There is a limit to the number allowed dependent on the facilities that can be prepared for quarantine. Each student needs to pay for their own quarantine and any subsequent medical treatment they require.  Staff at each facility have received training on how to manage themselves to keep safe. Extra security has been employed to manage the facilities. After two weeks of quarantine and negative testing for Covid-19, students are allowed to integrate into their tertiary and geographical communities. The quarantine facilities and procedures remain open all year and allow postgraduate students to arrive to study here plus new faculty and researchers. 

This is a base scenario from which there are many questions that need mapping at a systemic level, starting with: is this the best industry to be opening up in 2021?

There are health related questions – what percentage of arrivals can we expect to be infected? What stress will this put on our health system? What happens if one of the staff of the facilities catches Covid-19 and then spreads to people outside of the facility?

There are security questions – what happens if someone escapes?

There are ethical questions – for example, is it a good thing to allow numbers of international students into the country to study at this point?

There are wellbeing questions – how does this impact the wellbeing of our tertiary staff, domestic students and tangata whenua?

There are education questions – how might increasing risk of Covid-19 impact our teaching and learning in 2021? What are the impacts of not having international students at our tertiary institutions in terms of adding value to the classroom?

There are economic questions – what are the opportunity costs of not having international students in 2021? What is the cost/benefit analysis of allowing international students to study in NZ in 2021?

There are also sociological questions around the effects on society and geographical questions of where the students may come from and many, many more to be considered iteratively and in light of the constant change in the process of the decision to open our borders  – and this is just one industry.

Let’s hope those making the decisions continue to gather the expertise needed, work with tangata whenau and converse with the team of 5 million. 

Associate Professor Sara Walton is based at Work Futures Otago, at the Otago Business School, University of Otago.