While Labour talks about a recovery centred on jobs and training, private training providers struggle to keep their doors open. Laura Walters reports

The Government has made the first step towards reopening the border to overseas students, but private training establishments who rely on the international market say they’ve been left high and dry.

Private training establishments (PTEs) are facing closure as they struggle to access a tiny pool of government money.

The assistance fund is supposed to help support the sector until international students return, but it’s small, hard to access, and is unlikely plug the gap until their international students return.

This could lead to job losses, loss of international reputation, and fewer training providers, during a time when the Labour Party is staking its re-election campaign on a jobs- and training-based Covid recovery.

And the struggles with Covid-19 come after a difficult year of change for the industry, with the Labour-led government’s vocational education overhaul.

In an effort to prop up the struggling international education industry, the Government has invested $51.6 million. But PTEs only get a $9.9m slice of that pie – an assistance fund they say falls well-short of expectations.

PTEs contribute about $1.3 billion to the economy – a significant chunk of the country’s $5b international student market.

And they think the Government could do more to help them stay afloat, until students return, which is likely to happen next year.

Craig Musson, chairman of the industry body Independent Tertiary Education NZ (ITENZ), said the issues with accessing the fund meant some providers were looking at either hibernation or closing their doors.

This would result in job losses and a blow to the previously lucrative sector.

“Without the fund and with declining enrolments many will be forced into hibernation or closure over the next few months.”

The sector was surprised by the small amount of funding announced, and the “inequitable” criteria, Musson said.

Of 150 international private training providers, 51 applied, and only six were accepted for full funding to keep them running until international students returned. 

A further two PTEs were accepted for partial funding, and the Tertiary Education Commission asked a further six providers for additional information before making a decision.

The funding covers the 2021 financial year and must be used by the end of June next year.

Musson said PTEs that were declined funding, or who were ineligible, now needed to review their financial position and make decisions on the future of their business, but providers would not want to declare their hand yet as it would affect current and potential students.

This would only add to the stress many were currently under, he said.

In an effort to stay afloat, some providers had pivoted towards training New Zealand students, and applying for domestic funding, but this had an effect on business continuity, especially when the borders did look set to open at some point next year.

“Without the fund and with declining enrolments many will be forced into hibernation or closure over the next few months. 

“It is the 2021 year that we are all worried about if borders remain closed.”

Borders start to reopen to students

On Monday, the Government made its first move towards opening the border to international students.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced new exceptions for 250 international postgraduate and PhD students to come into the country, starting in November.

Hipkins said safety remained the top priority, but about 10,400 exceptions have already been granted for people such as essential health workers, other critical workers and family of New Zealand citizens or permanent residents. 

This week’s exception was a “balanced decision” that recognised the vital role international education would play in the recovery and rebuild of New Zealand, and the need to continue the fight against the pandemic, he said.

This exception would not include those studying at PTEs, and Hipkins acknowledged the difficulty they were facing, but both Musson and the minister said this was a step in the right direction.

“The move has been welcomed by PTEs but like many businesses, they’re having to make tough decisions to ensure they’re viable in the longer term.”

“The Government acknowledges that the situation is particularly difficult for Private Training Establishments, such as English language providers, as their students often study for short periods of time,” Hipkins told Newsroom, adding that the Government had been working with PTEs.

“The exception of a limited number of international PhD and Masters students being allowed back in the country announced [on Monday] is an important first step to rebuilding the international education sector.

“The move has been welcomed by PTEs but like many businesses, they’re having to make tough decisions to ensure they’re viable in the longer term.”

If the country had a Labour-led government next week, Hipkins had told the industry there would soon be a roadmap to look at the rest of the sector and prioritise international students to enter New Zealand for study.

But in the meantime, PTEs are struggling to hold on.

“We would prefer to have the borders opened to international students as soon as possible, as we don’t need the funding if the borders are opened,” Musson said.

But so long as the borders remained closed, the financial assistance would be deemed “substandard” by the industry.

The jobs and training recovery

This struggle to stay afloat, made difficult by a lack of adequate assistance, comes as the Labour Party mounts its election campaign on the back of the Covid-19 recovery.

Labour’s core platform this election has been its handling of the Covid health crisis and the beginning of the country’s economic recovery. The party says that recovery is hinged on jobs and training.

The past few weeks have seen Jacinda Ardern travel the country, meeting with students and apprentices to highlight the plan.

But providers say this message is at odds with the situation they’ve found themselves in.

Closures or hibernation would affect the providers, students, and the country’s reputation as a study destination. This is despite Hipkins saying international students would be an important part of the country’s economic recovery.

It would also lead to reduced staffing levels, impacting administrative staff and other people who relied on the industry, such as landlords, cleaners, photocopying contracts, and even fees paid to NZQA. Homestays, domestic tourism, hospitality and retail would likely also feel the impact if providers were to shut.

Those who spoke to Newsroom said it would be cheaper for the Government to support PTEs to fulfil their obligations to students, and keep them open until students returned, rather than risk a crippled sector.

Leave a comment