4 Aug 2020

NZ international student sector: More focus on quality education than work rights - Cabinet papers

10:28 am on 4 August 2020

A Cabinet paper shows the government wants to use the pandemic to transform the $5 billion international student sector.

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Photo: 123RF

The June paper said the Covid-19 crisis provided an opportunity to shift the market to higher-value enrolments with a greater focus on academic quality and less emphasis on work rights for foreign students.

Education leaders agreed New Zealand's good handling of the outbreak would make it a much more attractive destination for many foreign students, but they were dubious about the paper's suggestion that New Zealand institutions should offer more online courses to overseas learners.

The Cabinet paper said the pandemic was expected to cost education providers about $600 million in lost fees this year, but New Zealand could leverage its handling of the outbreak to attract students.

"The halt on international travel provides an opportunity to redefine how some of the sector value is generated. For example, the government can encourage the sector to rebuild in a way that is less reliant on student mobility which causes environmental strain, and place more focus on maximising the uptake of online delivery for students offshore," the paper said.

"As we look to attract international students back to New Zealand we can shift and target marketing and promotion efforts towards students and markets that generate better outcomes for New Zealand and the students themselves."

Last week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced $51.6m from the Covid-19 recovery fund for the international education sector.

The document identified weaknesses and risks.

"The sector has a high level of reliance on a few markets, with the Crown carrying a significant proportion of the risk in the event of provider failure. There is also a risk that without intervention in the context of Covid-19 disruption, the sector might return fully to focusing on student volume to regain lost revenue once border restrictions ease," the paper found.

"Achieving the potential of the sector will require strengthening and resetting aspects of the system to address some underlying issues.

"These include reliance on certain markets and low-value, high-volume business models which have generated quality issues and financial risk for parts of the sector, including Crown-owned institutions. It will also require a multi-year investment in marketing, building capability within the sector and re-orienting the sector towards more sustainable business models."

Debate on high-level courses, work rights, countries of students' origin

Victoria University senior lecturer specialising in international education Stephanie Doyle said the pandemic provided a significant opportunity to change the sector.

"If there is going to be managed entry, that is going to be a huge lever - who gets access to those students who are going to be allowed in," she said.

"Never before have we had this ability to control borders in the way that borders are being controlled at the moment and will be controlled for the foreseeable future."

Dr Doyle said the government appeared to want to reshape the system so to emphasise courses that were high value socially, economically and for relationships with other countries.

She said it was likely to weigh up whether it was worth letting students into the country for short-term courses of a few months duration, as opposed to students who wanted to study in secondary schools for three or four years, or at universities.

Doyle said post-study work rights were likely to remain important.

"They're enormously attractive to many international students regardless of what level they are studying at."

However, New Zealand's handling of the pandemic would have a big effect on its ability to attract foreign students.

"New Zealand's performance has been stunning, it's in another stratosphere," she said.

"The students themselves and their families will want to know they're going into a safe environment."

Chris Hipkins said the government would prioritise high-value students as it started to reopen the borders.

"If we start to have the space through our managed isolation and quarantine for international students to come into New Zealand, of course we're going to look at what's the most valuable way of using that for New Zealand," he said.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins

Education Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

However, Hipkins said value would not be measured solely in financial terms. Cultural exchange and long-term relationships between countries were also important.

He also signalled the government would review students' work rights and the amount of money they must bring with them to support themselves.

"We'd like to see less of a focus on getting students in the country who have to work whilst they're studying out of financial necessity, to ones who can support themselves while they are studying," he said.

Hipkins said the government had already weeded out low-value programmes that failed to deliver what students needed and contributed to exploitation.

"I think Covid-19 will have almost certainly drawn a line under any remaining providers who were working under that model and now we've got the opportunity as we're building back to make sure we're building back in the right areas. We're offering a gold-standard product, a really high quality of educational experience focused on a group of international students who have a lot to offer New Zealand while they're here," he said.

Hipkins said he hoped to see more students studying at higher levels, more students from countries other than India and China, and more New Zealanders going overseas to study.

'Online is not a sell-able product from New Zealand'

Paul Chalmers from Independent Tertiary Education New Zealand (ITENZ), which represents private tertiary providers, said the education system was already in the state the government wanted to achieve because poor performers had been weeded out.

"I think they'd have trouble finding low-value courses to be honest," he said.

Portrait photo

Paul Chalmers from Independent Tertiary Education New Zealand (ITENZ), Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

Chalmers said the government appeared to be targeting shorter courses aimed at helping Indian students gain work permits and, eventually, residence.

"That industry has been pretty much tidied up over the last three to four years through the initiatives put in place by NZQA in tidying up what I would call rogue providers. There are none left in the market that I can tell."

However, he said ITENZ would oppose the government if it wanted to reduce enrolments in one-year programmes that led to employment and residency.

"They may hold those views and I think we have to challenge them on those views," he said.

Chalmers said reducing students' work rights would harm enrolments, but not as much as it would have before the pandemic.

He said the government's goal of offering online courses to foreign students was not realistic.

"Online is not a sell-able product from New Zealand to be honest. What people want is face-to-face teaching, that's what we're really good at, that's what people want to see, that's what they'll buy."

Chalmers also opposed greater regulation of recruitment of students because it was likely to limit recruitment to a few licensed immigration agents.

"I think the system's working pretty well at the moment. The age of hundreds and hundreds of agents is over."

Schools International Education Business Association director John van der Zwan said the pandemic provided an opportunity to move faster on plans the government announced in its strategic plan for international education in 2018.

He said the school sector had been able to look more at online learning, which would reduce reliance on in-bound students.

However, he said it was unlikely to replace Chinese students, who provided most school enrolments, with students from other countries.

"It's less a move to wean us off, and more to supplement the students that come from China with other alternatives. It's more about spreading the risk than reducing our reliance on one particular market."

Universities New Zealand director Chris Whelan said the pandemic had fast-tracked "emergency online teaching", but that was very different to trying to enrol students in online courses.

"We've been trying to find ways of diversifying and reduce our dependence on a few key markets for at least the last six or seven years. It takes a long time to do it.

"We're certainly keen to see what are the options around that, but we're not sure that some of the options that are on the table right now like online, we're not sure that they're that viable," he said.

Whelan said most foreign students wanted to study in-country, not online.

Many also wanted to work while they were studying, so maintaining their work rights was essential, he said.

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