The education sector is alarmed at Immigration New Zealand's recent advice for overseas students to apply for their visas four months ahead of their departure.
As of 7 October, the average processing time for an international student visa application submitted from outside of New Zealand was six weeks (29 working days), according to an Immigration New Zealand (INZ) update on Education New Zealand's website.
"Whilst the average processing time is six weeks, Immigration New Zealand continues to strongly recommend that students apply for their visas around four months ahead of their intended travel date, especially as we are entering the main student processing peak combined with summer, which sees high numbers of visitor visas," the advisory said.
It also said INZ could not prioritise processing for late applications and the agency was unable to prioritise based on travel bookings.
"Students should not finalise travel plans until they have their visa granted," the advisory said.
INZ Visa Director Sarah Clifford said the agency was in the process of updating its student visa information to reflect this.
Clifford said INZ had been advising students to apply four months ahead of their intended travel dates, if possible, for most of this year. She added it was not a requirement, but a recommendation.
"Applying early will help students avoid any unnecessary stress for them with timing and travel over the peak processing period," she said.
Arunima Dhingra, chair of the New Zealand Association of Migration and Investment, said the messaging from INZ "has caused some confusion and panic in the industry," as many thought the four-month lead time was a requirement.
Dhingra said she had received some questions from students and stakeholders, including whether new financial documentation would be required (due to the existing requirement to provide at least three months' worth of recent bank statements as part of the visa application), or whether it was even worth applying in November or December for a February intake.
"This confusion does not help when we are all trying to rebuild NZ's international education industry," she said, adding that she had asked INZ to clarify its stance.
"The January/February 2024 intake is crucial for NZ, and we are hoping for it to be bigger than the one in 2023," she said. "For this to happen, INZ needs to be operationally prepared with enough resources and trained officers to handle these volumes without needing long processing timeframes."
Pressure on students
Ireen Rahiman-Manue, co-chair of the Ethnic Communities Advisory Panel, who used to work with international students, said INZ's advice would put extra pressure on students who needed to prepare for examinations.
Manue said many overseas students had not received their own domestic exam results or an offer from a New Zealand university, so it was impossible for them to apply four months in advance.
"What we should be doing right now is allowing students to focus on exams," Manue said, adding that applying for visas was not straightforward for many people, as it took time to consult with advisors and the like.
"[The application timeframe] shouldn't come as a pressure right now. Just leave things when it should happen," she said. "If we don't have enough workforce at INZ to look after visas - especially student visas coming January, February next year - that's a conversation we need to have with INZ, but let's not disadvantage students for that."
India-based education consultant Kshitij Garg, who recruits for New Zealand institutions, said it was "disappointing to see that INZ was not able to manage the process in a more streamlined manner".
"If INZ keeps changing its narrative about processing timelines, it will surely have a negative impact on the international education sector of New Zealand," Garg said. "We don't know how to strategise our campaigns targeted to promote New Zealand as a quality study destination."
Garg said it would make offshore students feel as if they were not appreciated in New Zealand.
INZ needed to understand the value of international students and what impact its decisions brought to students who were considering New Zealand to study, Garg said.
"Offshore agents who specialise in New Zealand have been forced to look beyond New Zealand to send their students to," Garg said. "Who is responsible for this? Someone has to take accountability."
New Zealand-based immigration advisor Vandana Rai said INZ failed to consider programme type as a factor when students applied for visas.
"From their perspective, it appears that the significance attributed to a short-term English programme is equivalent to that of a highly specialised programme with only one intake per year," Rai said.
"It is also noteworthy that specialised programmes have specific entry requirements that may necessitate additional processing time by the respective universities."
Rai was also concerned that INZ said it would not prioritise processing for late applications.
"Considering they are advising on applying four months in advance, anything applied for closer will be considered a late application and we have no way to request priority processing, even though it may be for a specialised university programme that only has a single intake a year," she said.
Peter Luo, who works in New Zealand as an immigration advisor, said the four-month lead time was too long and would "push students towards other countries".
He said that INZ office dealing with student visas was based in Palmerston North, and officers might not know the market well as the main international student market was in Auckland.
Luo said there had been a lack of communication between INZ and the sector, and he hoped the office could be moved to Auckland.
He also said the application process for student visas should be streamlined, as the volume of applications was bigger in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, but they generally processed applications faster.
"New Zealand is not that competitive in the international education market ... now it's falling behind more," Luo said. "This must change."
He also said INZ should bring back offshore offices in China and India to deal with student and visitor visas, as local officers might be in a better position to decide on applications.
Early applications recommended
Clifford from INZ said having a valid "offer of place" was a requirement of many student visa applications.
"Students waiting for key results or documents may not be able to apply in line with our recommended timeline of four months ahead of travel and we understand this," she said. "Students should apply for their student visa as soon as they are able to do so."
Clifford said INZ worked closely with the sector and to ensure students had all the information needed when applying. The agency had encouraged sector bodies to circulate [www.immigration.govt.nz/assist-migrants-and-students/assist-students/student-visa-info student visa checklists].
Education New Zealand also urged students considering studying in New Zealand to apply via the appropriate channel as soon as they could.
"The end of the year is an important and very busy time as learners prepare for semester one 2024," an Education NZ spokesperson said. "We know the sector is working hard to facilitate enrolments across all levels, and we advise students considering studying in New Zealand who have queries to seek clarification from their institution."