New Zealanders are enrolling in universities and polytechnics in record numbers, posing new challenges for the education sector

As Covid-19 closed our borders last year, universities were faced with the loss of one of their biggest earners. International students pay more than double the fees of their domestic counterparts and the sharp decline in their numbers has hit tertiary institutions hard.

A year on from the border closures, the sector is now grappling with an unprecedented boom in domestic enrolments, a shortfall in government funding and the needs of an increasingly local student body.

“It really took us by surprise”, says chief executive of Universities New Zealand Chris Whelan. “We expected a spike, but not quite this.”

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Increases in domestic students are normal in times of economic hardship, but this year’s enrolments have blown well past the records previously set during the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. 

Victoria University of Wellington reported 1350 more domestic full-time equivalent students (a 9 percent increase); meanwhile its international EFTS dropped by a 470, which was not as bad as feared.

Waikato University recorded 740 more domestic students (a 9.7 percent bump); the University of Canterbury said it had 1584 (13 percent) more full-time domestic students, and 668 (44 percent) fewer international students, the University of Otago said it had 1341 more EFTS, more than offsetting a decline of 389 international EFTS.

Most of the major universities saw 7 to 13 percent growth in domestic enrolments, with Waikato University recording a 9.7 percent bump (740 students), Victoria University of Wellington 9 percent (1350 students) and Otago University 7.9 percent (1341 students). Lincoln University chalked up a record-setting 35 percent spike in new-to-programme enrolments after making a number of its courses fees-free.

The polytechnics also saw big growth, with Otago Polytechnic recording an 800 student rise (30 percent) and Waikato Institute of Technology an 850 students increase (26 percent). Te Pūkenga, the new unified polytechnic and training body, recorded a 10 percent increase in total across the sector.

So why are so many Kiwis enrolling to study? Though the job market has tightened, unemployment has been lower than many predicted. In April, even optimistic forecasts were suggesting rates around 9 percent. In the last quarter of 2020, it was just 4.9 percent.

What makes this boom different from those of past downturns is a combination of border restrictions, government ‘fees-free’ programmes and changes to university entrance requirements.

Students at Victoria University of Wellington
Universities are seeing some of their biggest ever increases in domestic enrolment. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“It’s a pretty unique mix we haven’t really seen before,” says Grant Guilford, vice-chancellor at Victoria University of Wellington.

A big part of the increase is the lack of overseas travel and study options. In 2018, nearly 14,000 New Zealanders between the ages of 20-28 left the country intending to remain overseas for a year or more. With border restrictions in place, many of those young people are entering or returning to study here.

But border restrictions and unemployment are only part of the picture. Guilford says we are also seeing the payoff of policies aimed at making it easier for New Zealanders to get into tertiary study.

Chief amongst these is the Government’s Targeted Training and Apprenticeship Fund that began in July of last year. The scheme pays for the fees of apprenticeships and provided fees-free courses in fields like construction and farming until the end of 2022.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins says that more than 100,000 students have taken up the funding so far, with about a third in construction and 18 percent in the primary industries.

Builder on building site in Papamoa
Construction training as seen the largest boost in fees-free enrolments. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

At Lincoln University in Canterbury, the introduction of fees-free programmes has seen a 58 percent rise in first time enrolments from this time last year. In particular, programmes in agriculture/horticulture and landscape architecture have seen the biggest growth.

Another factor is changing institutional attitudes about university entrance.    

Derek McCormack, vice-chancellor at AUT University, says New Zealand tertiary providers are more willing to take students who don’t get the traditional University Entrance qualification. 

Most universities now offer foundation courses for those failing to meet UE requirements and applications have been booming there too.

That’s good news for tertiary providers struggling to make up the lost income from international students, but the influx of domestic students is no silver bullet.

“We need a huge cash injection, and we need it now.”
– Tina Smith, Tertiary Education Union

Domestic enrolments have gone well beyond the forecasts that universities provided to the Government in their annual plans at the end of last year. Those early numbers determine how much funding an institution will receive, and the blow-out has led to a funding shortfall of millions of dollars.

While the Government has agreed to increase their funding limits to cover at least half of the deficit, money is being held up until enrolment numbers are finalised next month.

“We need a huge cash injection, and we need it now,” says Tina Smith, national president of the Tertiary Education Union.

While domestic enrolments have been growing, many universities have cut staff numbers in recent months.

Signage at University of Auckland
Domestic students are choosing different subjects than their international counterparts. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Around 300 staff from the University of Auckland recently accepted voluntary leaving packages, with similar schemes rolling out at Victoria, AUT, Massey and Lincoln universities.

Smith says that’s premature and has meant remaining staff are being asked to teach more students with less support.

“I think universities need to take the long view, student numbers are growing and we need more staff to look after them.”

It’s a concern shared by Andrew Lessells, president of NZ Union of Students Association. Lessells says the huge influx of students is not being matched by an increase in support staff or funding.

“I’m worried for them both in terms of their academic and pastoral support, but also their mental health.”

Domestic students don’t just bring in less money than their international counterparts, they are also taking different courses. This means that institutions are having to rethink the received wisdom about which subjects were set for growth in the next few years.

McCormack says international student enrolments have been higher in business and engineering, while domestic students have favoured teaching, science, and the humanities.

“They’ve brought a lot more than just the income.”
– Grant Guilford, Victoria University of Wellington

The role of international students in funding our tertiary education sector has been a subject of debate since long before Covid-19.

To Guilford, the years of income and investment generated by international students has been worth it despite the current predicament.

“We’ve had a really long period of great investment because of those students and they’ve brought a lot more than just the income.”

However, Smith believes New Zealand has long been over-reliant on international students to offset years of under-investment.

“International students shouldn’t be the gap filler in our funding,” she says.

“That’s just not right.”

Some institutions have weathered the storm better than others. Otago University was the only major university to limit international numbers and has been the only one not to announce staffing cuts.

Still, Guilford says New Zealand has taken a balanced approach overall.

“We had international students at about 12-20 percent of the total. If you look at Australia, they were at 35-45 percent,” he says.

As New Zealand looks ahead to the opening of the trans-Tasman bubble, universities and other tertiary providers are beginning to rethink these questions all over again. 

Open borders could mean the return of the high paying international student set, but it could also see a premature end to New Zealand’s experiment with educational self-sufficiency.

Ben Leonard writes on Treaty issues and the environment.

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