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Win-win from international students

13 May 2020 | news

International students in New Zealand have hit the headlines this year. With students unable to get here for the start of the academic year, the financial implications for universities and the wider community have been severe.

Many of these students are here to take advantage of New Zealand’s policy of charging international students domestic fees to complete their PhDs.

While this policy is an obvious plus for the students themselves, does it pay off for universities and the country as a whole?

New research from the University of Auckland (UA) suggests the answer is a definite ‘Yes’.

Joshua (Yik Ching) Lee, originally from Malaysia, was a doctoral student from 2010 to 2015, choosing New Zealand because of a specific research interest, coupled with the high quality of research, and the reputation of our culture and environment. His PhD research at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute was funded by a range of New Zealand bodies, including the New Zealand Health Research Council.
Joshua is currently a lecturer at AUT, where he teaches foundation courses in engineering, computer and mathematical sciences. He recently completed a post-graduate degree in education and may do further post-graduate study in education to continue his development as a lecturer.
Joshua has been visited by friends and family at least five times since coming to New Zealand to undertake his doctoral studies. These visitors were keen to explore the country, spending between one and two weeks travelling across New Zealand.

Positive difference

From clinical studies of infectious diseases to conservation; business studies to health IT, international students coming to New Zealand to complete their PhDs make a positive difference to New Zealand—both while they are here and through the links they forge in their later careers.

That’s according to a study from the University of Auckland’s School of Graduate Studies, which looks at the experience of doctoral graduates three, eight and fifteen years after graduation. Since 2006, any international student enrolling in a PhD for the first time at a New Zealand university has paid the same fees as domestic students. Their spouses are entitled to working visas, and their children can be enrolled in the school system as domestic students.

International enrolments steadily increased from fewer than 1,000 in 2005 to more than 3,000 in 2015—growth that coincided with an increase in the research impact of New Zealand universities.

An initial on-line survey in March 2019 was followed up by more in-depth questions later last year and showed that the domestic fees policy figured largely in helping international students decide on coming to New Zealand for PhD study. About 46% of respondents rated this policy as one of the top three reasons for coming here, and another 25% said a scholarship offer (possible because of the domestic fees policy) was one of the top three factors in deciding to come to the University of Auckland. Other common factors influencing the choice of New Zealand as a study destination were the image of New Zealand, and the quality of the tertiary education system.

About half those who had graduated in the previous three years were still living in New Zealand at the time of the survey, with around a quarter of the 8-year and 15-year cohorts still here.

Follow-up interviews with graduates suggested that—without the domestic fees policy—interviewees would have gone on to explore doctoral programmes outside New Zealand.

Nouran Ragaban, originally from the US, completed both her Master’s and doctoral studies at the University of Auckland, thanks to an international scholarship. The domestic fees policy made New Zealand attractive for the scholarship provider as it significantly reduced the cost of her study.
She studied at the School of Population Health, focusing on the development and implementation of health Information Technology (IT) strategy in New Zealand. While studying, Nouran worked as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Auckland and volunteered at the ADHB as a health IT consultant, at Middlemore hospital (as research support), and at an NGO, which gave her valuable industry experience in policy development and implementation.
Middlemore hospital implemented suggestions based on Nouran’s volunteer work in their emergency care department, and ADHB integrated aspects of her research into their regional health IT strategy work.
After finishing her PhD, Nouran returned to the US to find better job opportunities and more competitive salary offers. She currently works for a federally funded research and development not-for-profit, focusing on health information technology.
Nouran is keen to foster industry connections with the New Zealand health IT sector, both because she thinks the two countries could mutually benefit from sharing research on healthcare policy, but also because she feels connected to New Zealand, which was her home for so many years.
Nouran would consider returning to New Zealand for the right opportunity. At least five people have visited New Zealand based on Nouran’s recommendations, travelling throughout the country.

Around 80% of the international doctoral alumni surveyed contributed to New Zealand society—both during and after their studies—through working in innovation, local community, education, public policy development and/or addressing environmental sustainability/social challenges, and providing employment opportunities.

Examples of these contributions include developing a public health campaign on maternal health, developing public policy on local and international migration, and work on sustainability and energy efficiency in cities.  

Within the group of international students who left New Zealand following their doctoral studies, 53% retain a connection to New Zealand, with the most common forms of connection being a research collaboration or a business link.

And of those who stayed New Zealand to work, 21% said they had developed relationships with their home countries in their current or previous employment.

Finding better job opportunities was a key reason for leaving New Zealand after completing their doctoral studies for both international and domestic students, with 68% of international students and 95% of domestic doctoral students listing this as a reason for leaving. Other common reasons were family reasons and personal preferences.

Payoff for New Zealand

The payoff for New Zealand in attracting these students is broader than just the direct benefit to universities, students, their families and their employers.

Most international doctoral students attract international visitors, with 84% reporting that being in New Zealand had led to at least one international visitor travelling to New Zealand, and nearly half attracting more than five international visitors since starting their doctoral studies. A group of ‘magnet students’ (10% of the respondents) resulted in over 30 international visits per student, with visitors who often travelled around New Zealand, engaging in tourism activities.

Of the international doctoral alumni who now live overseas, 26% would like to move back to New Zealand in the future. Another 68% of international doctoral alumni who now live overseas would consider returning to New Zealand to live.


The benefits international doctoral students bring to New Zealand are both direct and indirect, tangible and intangible. These include:

  • a vibrant cultural diversity and exchange to our study programmes, universities, cities and wider country
  • research achievements, strategic skills and post-study careers that have a positive impact on New Zealand’s health, education, policy, industry, community, sustainability and wellbeing—as well as on the economy (international education is New Zealand’s 4th largest export earner)
  • ongoing contributions to tourism
  • developing and maintaining international research collaborations and business networks
  • the ongoing promotion of New Zealand overseas
  • the ongoing promotion of New Zealand as a study destination.