Great challenges, but greater opportunities.

That’s how the Minister of Education is describing New Zealand’s struggling international education sector, ahead of the country’s borders reopening, while those in the industry say the country has missed the bus at a huge cost to New Zealand.

Chris Hipkins is on the ground in Denver, Colorado where he is set to give a speech to the hundreds of education industry members gathered at the NAFSA 2022 conference, run by the Association of International Educators. 

Hipkins is there to, in his own words, proudly represent New Zealand and to “tell you all unequivocally, we are here to welcome international students back to our country”.

Come July 31, the international border will be fully reopened and Hipkins wants to make it clear New Zealand will be open for business – including to international students.

Ahead of the border opening, the Government has created space for 5000 overseas students through a border class exemption, with visa processing currently underway for these spots.

Fears NZ became ‘invisible’

While Hipkins is galavanting around to champion New Zealand as an attractive studying destination – from the cultural experience to academic standards – he’s tempering his enthusiasm with the acknowledgment there are hurdles to overcome after two years of a global pandemic.

“As we look forward, we face not only a period of great challenges, but also greater opportunity.”

According to Education New Zealand (ENZ), prior to 2020 there were more than 115,000 international students studying in New Zealand. Today, there are fewer than 20,000. 

ENZ’s chief executive Grant McPherson is travelling with Hipkins and after the US will lead a group to South America, stopping off in Chile and Brazil.

Education New Zealand chief executive Grant McPherson is also travelling with Chris Hipkins. Photo: Supplied

McPherson is bursting with good things to say about the trip, even as he lets slip his worries New Zealand had fallen off the radar as a desirable international study option because other countries threw open the door to overseas travellers much sooner.

“My fear as chief executive is we’d become invisible, but what we’re seeing is we’re still highly regarded and people still want to engage with us. It’s been a very good couple of days,” he says.

“The feedback we’ve had has been incredibly positive and the feeling we have is we haven’t disappeared off the radar.”

From here, he says the focus is on re-establishing relationships with overseas organisations and students.

“It isn’t going to necessarily be easy, but we just need to keep the momentum going. It makes sure we keep the brand alive, the messaging alive, but also really importantly, keep those relationships alive,” he says.

No Covid-19 afterglow

Momentum is exactly what Darren Conway, managing director at English language school Languages International, thinks New Zealand has missed out on.

Conway, who is also chair of English New Zealand, has just returned from a three week business trip that stopped off in Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, and Germany. 

He describes the relative delay opening New Zealand’s borders as meaning other English-speaking destinations have left this country in the dust.

While he supports the Government’s initial response to Covid-19, he doesn’t believe this has led to Covid-hesitant international students seeing New Zealand as a safer study option.

“We didn’t get any afterglow of how great Jacinda was, or how great our response was. We think our response was great, but the reopening has been slower than it needed to be.”

Conway believes this lag will cost the country dearly when the number of international students who would normally be in the country this year won’t start studying until next year.

“It will cost us billions of dollars, not hundreds of millions – billions.”

Despite this, he’s hopeful that the sector will look healthy come the start of 2023 when students finally start arriving.

‘Dribble’ of business

But until that happens, Conway says businesses dependent on the flow of students will struggle.

Global Student managing director Bridget Egan heads one of those businesses. She says it’s been incredibly difficult for companies like hers to keep their heads above water during the pandemic.

Those which have survived have made drastic cuts to staff and working hours to stay afloat.

There has been no sudden uptick in demand since the border reopening was announced either, Egan says.

“It’s a dribble. The little bit of demand we’ve got was based on keeping the wheels turning throughout the border closure.”

This includes making sure clients are kept in the loop about border settings, and updating students’ documents.

Egan believes many potential students will have chosen to go to other countries, such as Canada or Australia, who have already reopened their borders.

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