New Zealand confident of international enrolment’s Covid recovery

Nation adds new work restrictions for overseas students and avoids any new recovery aid, as education minister sees extended lockdown raising value of its campuses

June 7, 2022
New Zealand, parliament, government
Source: iStock
New Zealand parliament buildings

New Zealand’s government sees the flow of international students recovering so well from its two-year Covid shutdown that it is limiting some student work rights and holding off on any new institutional aid.

With regular student visa issuances set to resume in August, the Labour Party government has decided it will forbid employment of undergraduates seeking less than a bachelors degree except for those working in limited high-need areas. And students finishing their degrees will be allowed to remain in New Zealand to work only for as long as they had been attending classes in the country – including up to three years for students who complete advanced degrees.

The government also just set out a 2022 budget that increases university funding for domestic students by an estimated 2 per cent, well below the rate of inflation.

New Zealand’s education minister, Chris Hipkins, said that the moves reflected a sense that the extended nationwide shutdown worked well, and helped institutions as much or more than it may have hurt them.

“The universities have actually been in a very robust financial position” through the pandemic, Mr Hipkins told Times Higher Education during a tour of the US to promote his nation’s higher education sector.

“One of the things that we monitored was whether they were in a position to kind of ride out the cycle – recognising that this was a cycle – without additional support,” he said. “And by and large, they actually managed to ride their way through the cycle in pretty good shape.”

Mr Hipkins did say, however, that the government typically increases funding to universities to reflect inflation over the previous year, and is likely to do that next year.

The new restriction on students working after their studies, meanwhile, reflected a need to combat some abuses, Mr Hipkins told THE. The government was seeing signs of a “small number of providers marketing New Zealand, not for its international education, but as a pathway to come to the country where you might not otherwise be eligible”, he said. In some cases, the government has said, students studying for only a few months have remained to work for several years.

“We’ve considered that carefully,” he said of the tougher restrictions, and concluded that the change was warranted, given that most international students already return home after their studies.

After the resumption of visas in August, the number of international students immediately coming to New Zealand “will still be relatively limited, just because of timing,” Mr Hipkins said. “But 2023 – we’re certainly endeavouring to make that as good a year as possible for our institutions.”

New Zealand’s relatively tight border blockade during Covid seems wise in retrospect, because it was helpful to many students, Mr Hipkins said. “The sense of economic and social freedom that New Zealand got from that I think was worth the sacrifice,” he said. International students who stayed in the country were given “a lot of support” and kept Covid-free, he said. That created “quite an oasis, and quite a good place to place to be during the pandemic”, he said.

The nation’s universities and foreign students don’t necessarily agree. The sector’s main lobby group, Universities New Zealand, has said that the pandemic shutdown left “a big hole in our research system” that will take years to fix.

And a survey earlier this year of more than 10,000 people from 93 countries, by the services giant IDP, showed New Zealand ranking last among the major English-speaking education destinations on five criteria that help shape student choices.

Before the pandemic, New Zealand universities hosted more than 20,000 students, generating NZ$5 billion (£2.6 billion) a year in economic activity.

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