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Immigration reset requires a steady hand to protect international student success story

06 April 2022 | news

A lit world globe falls into a hand. Image: Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

By Chris Whelan
Chief Executive
Universities New Zealand – Te Pōkai Tara

As Vice-Chancellor Professor Jan Thomas writes in her latest ‘From the chair’ column, Universities New Zealand – Te Pōkai Tara (UNZ) is urging the Government to lift border restrictions for international students before the currently proposed October or else double the size of the latest cohort of exemptions to 10,000.

Simultaneously, we want to ensure the Government gets its planned immigration reset right.  

If it doesn’t, international students will be further deterred from Aotearoa New Zealand. The message to them, their families, foreign governments and overseas agents will dent New Zealand’s reputation for being open and welcoming for international students – at a time we need more than ever to maintain and build on that reputation.

International education is a New Zealand success story, enabling us to compete in the global knowledge economy, increase innovation and benefit from the cultural diversity international students bring to our classrooms and communities. At all levels, from bachelor’s to doctoral degrees, international students increase the scope of courses our universities can offer to domestic students, making smaller programmes viable where domestic enrolments alone would not be sufficient. 

International students contribute to the New Zealand economy through their direct and indirect spending, increased trade with their home country, tax revenue and job creation. In 2019, they supported 45,000 jobs. Acting as ambassadors, they lift the country’s reach through soft power and reputational growth. A vibrant international education system empowers New Zealand’s ambitions, both on and offshore.

In higher education, international students increase and enhance our research output, leveraging our international collaborations and the citation impact of our research. This in turn contributes to our international rankings. Just over 1,400 PhD students graduate from New Zealand universities each year and almost half are international PhD graduates. Of those, half say they plan to work in New Zealand after graduation, the majority in education and training, healthcare and science and technology.

International university graduates are valuable highly skilled migrants sought by the world’s knowledge economies. There is intense global competition to retain this talent. This is evidenced by our competitor countries (United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia) developing policies to increase this retention.

For all students globally, employability is a key driver. Even more so for those choosing to make the significant investment to study in another country. The opportunity to apply what they have learned in their country of study is an expected component of today’s international education market. The right to work was ranked as one of the top five factors in students’ decisions to study in New Zealand in 2019.

The interest far exceeds uptake, but students find the option important. The international students that stay after graduation have strong English language ability, understand New Zealand and New Zealanders, and possess the cultural and language skills that can help New Zealand businesses operate in the global marketplace.

Of the international students that graduated from a New Zealand university during 2010–2014, 39.2% transitioned to a post-study work visa. Five years after graduation, 20.9% of international graduates had transitioned to a skilled work visa. Over 90% of those that stay long term are in high-skill roles. These students are what the Government would consider high value and what New Zealand needs. We can’t afford to lose them.

Our competitor countries understand the importance of international student work rights both during and after study. So must we.

Our current settings enable employment success for university graduates. A three-year period gives employers confidence in offering a position, as well as enough time for the student to reach the salary threshold for skilled migration should they wish to commit to New Zealand for a longer term.

Anything less than three years would disadvantage international graduates in the job market and drive skilled and qualified graduates to consider other countries for their education and employment.

Another area where the Government needs to be careful is any increase to ‘financial evidentiary requirements’ – i.e., the amount of money prospective students must show they can access each year of their study.

New Zealand has one of the strongest standards globally in terms of financial evidentiary requirements and we always require two semesters’ payment of tuition fees. The 2021 increase from $15,000 a year to $20,000 has been understood by students and agents. It signals the reasonable minimum costs needed to live in New Zealand if paid employment is not obtained.

Anything higher at this stage risks putting a New Zealand education out of reach for many international students and would be another win for our competitors.

Having focused on degree-level international students at university, it is important to emphasise the interconnectedness of all the international education sub-sectors in New Zealand.

There are major benefits to New Zealand from non-degree, non-labour-market-driven education. In addition to the basic economic and soft power returns from getting these students here, a significant proportion pathway into further education. For example:

  • Around 18% of international students who complete secondary school in New Zealand go on to study at a New Zealand university. 
  • Around 26% of English language school graduates go on to further tertiary study in New Zealand (11% to a university and 14% to other providers). 
  • Around 24% of university students with graduate diplomas go on to further degree-level study within New Zealand.

As with international degree-level students, the Government must be careful not to harm the well-balanced system that flourished before 2020 and is already vulnerable because of the impacts of Covid-19.

Any immigration reset needs to encourage recovery, not impede it.