Leaders have acknowledged concerns about the lack of support for Cook Islands tertiary students stranded in New Zealand.
Teherenui Koteka, the president of Victoria University Cook Islands Student Associations, has complained of a lack of support, care and contact during the Covid-19 crisis.
Prime Minister Henry Puna addressed the students’ concerns in Parliament this week.
And Secretary of Education Danielle Cochrane said she understood Covid-19 had impacted on the young people’s ability to continue their studies abroad, while lockdowns and travel bans had imposed additional costs on them.
Financial support to scholarship students had continued uninterrupted, she said, “but I accept we need to elevate our pastoral support.”
That would be done by working with the student associations, tertiary institutions, and government agencies like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration.
Secretary of Foreign Affairs Tepaeru Hermann confirmed the ministry would step up engagement with Cook Islands tertiary students, through the High Commission in Wellington.
Her ministry had, for some years, worked to strengthen relations with Cook Islands student associations, particularly through the annual Taokotai’anga gathering, leadership development opportunities and joint advocacy efforts to New Zealand tertiary institutions and student support services, Hermann added.
“Covid-19 has had enormous impacts across the full spectrum of Cook Islands society, government and business,” she said. “And by necessity, Government’s efforts over the last couple of weeks have been focused on preventing, limiting and mitigating the impact of Covid-19 on the Cook Islands.
“We are presently reaching out to student association presidents via our High Commission to welfare check on our students and thereafter, will explore how our Government can better support our students continue their education in what are presently challenging circumstances for all.”
Concerns were first raised on social media by the president of the Cook Islands Students Association at Victoria University, Teherenui Koteka. She is the daughter of the High Commissioner, Elizabeth Wright-Koteka.
“In the days following the announcement of New Zealand moving into Level 4 lockdown Cook Islands students have been forced to move out of their Halls of Residence and flats,” she wrote.
“We have lost our jobs and other sources of income. Our classes have been moved online, and we are still expected to complete 40-plus hours of course-work a week.
“We have experienced a decline in mental health due to increased stress, anxiety, and lack of physical contact. Cook Islands students are struggling!
“So begs the question; why has the Cook Islands government failed to provide us with support?”
Cook Islands community worker Thomas Wynne said he would be offering support to students at Victoria University as he resides in Wellington, and would look to link up pastoral care and counselling services in other university towns.
“Covid-19 has opened cracks we haven’t seen before, but has also given us the opportunity to respond and work collaboratively with those at home in Rarotonga.”
* An earlier version of this story said Cook Islands students associations had complained of a lack of support and care. Teherenui Koteka advises her views do not represent students associations at other tertiary institutions in New Zealand. We regret the editing error.