Chris Hipkins wants to diversify countries international students come from

It’s time to rebuild the devastated foreign student industry, Minister of Education Chris Hipkins says – but it needs to diversify too.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Hipkins told an international education conference he wanted to see higher-quality courses and more diversity in the nations that students were coming from.

“We don’t just want to build back the way that we were. We want a sector that delivers higher value, that’s resilient, sustainable and recognised for its innovative international education offerings for both domestic and international students.”

There would be less reliance on work rights and residency to attract students and greater diversity in the countries that students were drawn from, he said.

His comments came ahead of the publication of the government’s strategy for international education and after announcements on border and visa changes.

They included reopening the border to people with study visas from 31 July, and focusing post-study work rights on students who studied at higher levels or in skill demand areas.

Hipkins said it would take several years to rebuild enrolments, which Immigration New Zealand figures show had fallen from more than 120,000 a year to fewer than 12,000 in-country students.

He also warned schools against talking about the money they made from international students’ fees.

“One of the things that international families don’t like is being viewed as a source of revenue for New Zealand schools and I just would really encourage schools when they’re talking about the importance of international students in the media to think about that because we have had a lot of comment in the last two years about our school’s now cash-strapped because we haven’t got international students.”

Hipkins had good news for primary schools – the government has dropped plans to stop them enrolling foreign students.

Tauranga Intermediate principal Cameron Mitchell was at the conference and said it was the right decision.

“International students, there’s a misconception that they’re only for high-decile schools. Coming from Tauranga Intermediate, we’re a decile 5 school, we’ve had our international department going for 20 years, we’ve got four sister schools in different countries so we wanted to maintain those really positive relationships and this was very much put at jeopardy so I’m pleased that common sense has prevailed,” he said.

Education providers had struggled during the pandemic but so had many of their students.

The international student manager for Mairangi Bay School, Frank Jia, said some children and their mothers had been unable to see the rest of their family since the pandemic began.

“We have a student who hasn’t seen their dad for three years. That’s a lot of anxiety,” he said.

Jia said it was not clear how quickly enrolments would recover.

“The feedback currently is uncertainty. China is in lockdown. South Korea’s economy is not that great as well. And if they come here that means they may separate with their families for uncertain years,” he said.

Oropi School principal Andrew King said his school was ready to welcome foreign students back.

“We’ve been without international students 2022, we had one or two in 2021, and we’re ready to gear up and bring them back. We’ve got a really strong intercultural strategy at school, it would be great to have international students along to help bring that back to life,” he said.

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