Details of the Government’s long-gestating plans to dampen down net migration have been revealed, but how big an impact they will have remains unclear.
A clampdown on international students’ rights to stay in New Zealand and work after finishing their studies has been proposed in an effort to both raise the overall skill-level of those who stay and reduce migrant exploitation.
Under the changes, post-study work visas will no longer need to be sponsored by a particular employer but will be harder to get. There will be no changes to the rights of students to work during their studies at this stage.
Students studying towards a level 7 (degree) qualification or higher will be eligible for a three-year visa, but those enrolled at a level under that will have to spend two years studying to gain a single-year post-study visa.
The rules about students bringing family members to New Zealand will also get stricter for those working towards postgraduate or masters’ degrees.
Currently, those students’ partners are eligible for work visas and their dependent children get free schooling. Now this will only be an option if the student enrols in an area of study that is on the long-term skills shortage list.
International education has become a boom industry for the country, growing into the country’s fourth-largest export earner and raking in $4.5 billion in 2016.
But New Zealand’s strong economy has not only attracted students but also those keen on an easy pathway to residency, in addition to enticing more locals back home.
This has led to record levels of net migration in the past few years, peaking at 72,400 in July last year.
Before the election Labour campaigned on changes that would see a net migration cut by 20,000 to 30,000, largely driven by removing work rights for those enrolled in lower-level qualifications both while studying and after they graduated.
Its eventual coalition partner New Zealand First was even more radical, targeting a drop to just 10,000 – although that was unlikely to ever happen given the shockwave it would send through the economy.
But Labour banged the immigration drum loudly, criticising National for tinkering around the edges and claiming its policy would “give locals a chance first”.
To date, it has been fair to describe immigration as one of the Government’s most over-promised and under-delivered policy areas.
Just a few months into their term the Government was already pulling back from its pledge, stating its figures were not targets but “estimates”.
Warnings from officials that changing student visa settings could damage the lucrative education industry led to Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway “holding fire” on in-study work rights.
In 2016/17, 18,266 students went on to a post-study visa. Of those, officials estimated about 9000 to 12,000 would be affected by changing the settings and a reduction of 10,000 students would cost $261m in a “best-case scenario”.
Lees-Galloway said students were being misled into believing New Zealand was an easy option for residency.
This had led to a decline in the skill level of migrants granted permanent residence and an unacceptable level of fraudulent and unethical behaviour from some agents, employers and education providers.
“Too many students are being sold a false dream in New Zealand that the current post-study work rights can put students on a fast track to residency here.
“There have been too many cases where migrant workers have been subject to exploitation because they are dependent on a particular employer to stay in the country.”
Lees-Galloway could not say what the impact of the changes would be and was still undecided if the changes would apply to students already studying in New Zealand.
Pressure on the Government to follow-through on its election pledge and cut migration has been alleviated because of a gradual decline in net migration since it took power.
The latest figures saw an annual net gain of 67,000 migrants for the April 2018 year, down 4800 from the previous year.
This was despite an increased number of arrivals, which was offset by more non-New Zealand citizens leaving.
But the proposals, which open for public consultation on June 5, are sure to attract plenty of criticism.
One measure that could dip with the news could be the business confidence barometer.
It has been trending steadily lower since the coalition was formed, and a fiscally conservative budget failed to halt the decline.
The potential that the international education sector, which supports roughly 33,000 jobs, will lose out under the changes will not bolster the business community’s views as they also await the imminent announcement on the details surrounding Fair Pay Agreements.
There will also be grimaces within the polytechnic sector, where international education is keeping many institutions afloat.