Private tertiary education is losing international students to Australia and Canada as the sector begs for borders and visa processing to reopen.

A fortnightly Zoom meeting with education providers and government departments last week ended the same way it has for months: with a plea from the sector to reopen the borders for international students.

Covid-19 turned off the tap to the $5.1 billion international education sector last year. Since then private education businesses and universities have been regularly meeting with Education NZ and Immigration New Zealand calling for a plan to resurrect what was the country’s fifth largest export in 2019.

Before borders closed there were about 115,000 international students coming into the country in a year. At any given point there were 60,000 international students, but now there are fewer than 30,000 and that number is declining.

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Brijesh Sethi, who is the managing director of New Zealand Skills and Education, said his business suffered a 30 percent loss in revenue last year without new international students. 

New Zealand Skills and Education had 800 international students in 2019 from 88 countries, but last year this dropped to just under 200.

Sethi attended the education recovery meeting last week and said while the government had helped the industry through the $51.6 million injection last year, there was no indication of any further assistance for 2021.

“The market is losing hope. We need a plan.”

Immigration New Zealand overseas offices have stopped processing student visas for more than a year, and New Zealand education providers are concerned they are losing out to other countries. Photo: Supplied

In May, New Zealand’s international education sector was rated most desirable in a survey by Navitas Insights of 400 education agents from 63 countries due to the government’s handling of the pandemic.

A Cabinet paper released in July said New Zealand could use this momentum to attract students.

“The halt on international travel provides an opportunity to redefine how some of the sector value is generated. For example, the government can encourage the sector to rebuild in a way that is less reliant on student mobility which causes environmental strain, and place more focus on maximising the uptake of online delivery for students offshore,” the paper said.

“As we look to attract international students back to New Zealand we can shift and target marketing and promotion efforts towards students and markets that generate better outcomes for New Zealand and the students themselves.”

But Sethi said New Zealand had lost its “higher ground” in the international market because the government had not been unable to leverage its gains with a strong plan for the education sector.

“If borders are not open by the start of next year we may as well never open.”
– Chris Whelan, Universities NZ CEO.

One of the recommendations Sethi voiced at the fortnightly meeting was to offer offshore international students the ability to study online and use this to support visa applications to study in New Zealand once borders opened. 

Some public universities have attempted doing this. 

The University of Auckland set up learning centres for students who were stuck in China during the pandemic, in partnership with a number of Chinese universities.  Only Chinese students studying under this partnership could later use this for their visa application process.

Otago University was also offering online courses with the “potential” of it being used towards students’ visa applications. But there were no guarantees.

Without offering offshore international students incentives to eventually come to New Zealand, the industry may as well just close, Sethi said. 

“Students are going to Australia and Canada as those countries offer online courses with points towards student visa work rights, something New Zealand is not offering.” 

Sethi also called for Immigration New Zealand offices in India, China and the Philippines to resume the visa application processes. 

Aspire2 International chief executive Clare Bradley said private tertiary providers were concerned New Zealand was losing international students to other countries processing visa applications.

Bradley said 2020 had been an “extra ordinarily difficult” year for the business primarily focused on international students. The number of international students dropped from 4000 in 2019 to 400 last year.

Aspire2 International chief executive Clare Bradley says private tertiary providers were concerned New Zealand tertiary education providers can’t compete with international competitors for online courses. Photo: Supplied

She said without any indication about when borders may reopen, the industry had been unable to plan. 

“If we can’t have any international students this year the government needs to tell us so we can plan accordingly,” Bradley said.

For the time being Aspire2 International had been focusing on its international students onshore and tightening the finances. The business reduced its staff from 380 to 110.

She said it had been difficult for New Zealand tertiary education providers to compete with international universities offering online courses.

“To be blunt, no one in New Zealand can compete with the online study offered by other international providers. New Zealand’s strongest selling point is the country itself. It’s being able to live and study here.”

Across the Tasman, the New South Wales government was planning alternative MIQ facilities for international students in a bid to persuade its federal counterpart to approve their return from the second half of the year in a green channel for students.

International Education Association executive director Chris Beard said while the first step was to protect public health, it was worth looking at a similar path like Australia.

Beard said several education businesses had been staring down the barrel of closure after what he described had been a “traumatic” year for the industry.

“We’ve gone from being the fifth largest export to nothing.”

He said the international education sector had been “teetering on the edge of a cliff” and with businesses tightening their belts, placing hiring freezes and culling staff.

“No one in New Zealand can compete with the online study offered by international providers. New Zealand’s strongest selling point is the country itself.”
– Clare Bradley, Aspire2 CEO.

Earlier this year the government announced exceptions for 1000 bachelor and postgraduate students if they hold, or had held, a visa to study in New Zealand. This was in addition to an earlier exemption for 250 international PhD students.

Sethi said most of these spots were taken by public universities and issues with accommodating the students in MIQ facilities had caused further delays.

Universities NZ chief executive Chris Whelan said revenue for the eight public universities in New Zealand was down $300 million or 7 percent from 2019.

Whelan who also attended the meeting with Education NZ and Immigration NZ said the message was clear every session. 

There was increasing pressure on the government to come up with a long term plan for the international education sector. 

“If borders are not open by the start of next year we may as well never open,” Whelan said.

“We’ll lose at least 10 years of market share if we remain closed because all our northern hemisphere competitors will be open and taking in students,” he said.

“These are students that build people and trade links. It’ll be a tragedy if we lost it.”

* This article has been corrected to say that in 2019 there were 115,000 international students who came to New Zealand

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