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New Zealand’s international students face uncertain future


Students already in the country are suffering hardships, while border controls prevent others from entering

Current and prospective international students in New Zealand face a difficult year, as border closures remain in place and those already in the country must choose whether to stay indefinitely.

Universities will be starting the next semester in February without the usual intake of up to 15,000 new international students. 

Education New Zealand has warned that the visas of many international students who have remained in the country will expire in March and that students need to reapply by this month. Any students who went home over the summer are unable to return. ENZ has told providers that they must ensure that students have the contact details of a staff member, and that institutions remain responsible for the “pastoral care” of students. It estimates that around 25,000 to 30,000 students are still in the country.

Their accommodation, mental and physical wellbeing and finances may all be at risk, ENZ said.

The New Zealand International Students’ Association says that both prospective students and those still in the country are suffering. “International students in New Zealand have also been deeply affected by the pandemic, with many of them losing jobs and facing financial hardship due to changes in their financial situation,” the association said in a statement late last year. “With New Zealand’s borders remaining closed to international students, aside from 250 PhD and postgraduate international students, international students will gravitate towards other competitor destinations for international education.”

No further cohorts of international students being flown into the country have been announced, and tighter border restrictions make the prospect of a large-scale return this year unlikely. New Zealand continues to have an “elimination” strategy for Covid-19, with few non-residents permitted to enter.

However, ENZ’s statement said: “The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment continues to lead cross-government work on quarantine and managed isolation. The Ministry of Education is an active participant in these discussions to ensure that the needs and capabilities of the international education sector are considered as border systems and requirements evolve.”

Education minister Chris Hipkins issued a statement on 15 December to say that there would be “a further 12 to 18 months of disruption before we see a future where much of that will start to fade”.

“While we are looking to move as quickly as possible on the border, it is very unlikely that there will be one magic day where we cut a ribbon at the airport and all travellers will be welcomed in,” said Hipkins, who is also responsible for border controls.

Also in December, New Zealand’s universities agreed to recognise courses provided in a number of countries by British-based education company Northern Consortium UK, giving students a pathway into New Zealand when borders reopen.

The vice-chancellors’ group Universities New Zealand attacked the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research in December for suggesting that international students should lose their work rights. The institute had said that students and “working holidaymakers” were willing to work in low-paid roles for which they were overqualified, affecting the local job market. It also claimed that the right to work was a driver of the “low-value, high-volume” business model that had created dependence on international fees.

In response, Universities New Zealand chief Chris Whelan said that “the long-term reputational and financial impact on New Zealand would exceed any short-term benefits to New Zealanders”.

“As well as the cultural enrichment international students offer to the institutions they are part of, they create many more permanent jobs for New Zealanders than they fill themselves. In 2019, for example, international students supported 45,000 jobs in New Zealand. The international education system is driven by principles of reciprocity. If New Zealand prevents international students from working while they study, there is significant potential that overseas governments and agents will recommend that their citizens avoid New Zealand.”