31 Mar 2021

International students economy on shaky ground as staff roles cut

6:27 am on 31 March 2021

People who work with international students are warning that redundancies and funding cuts are putting them under increasing pressure.

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Half of 237 school and tertiary staff surveyed say the fall in enrolments has affected them significantly (File image). Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

They say New Zealand will struggle to restore its $5 billion international education industry if schools, universities and other tertiary institutions let their support for international students slip.

A survey of 237 staff at schools and tertiary institutions by the International Education Association (ISANA) found 67 percent expected severe financial consequences if the borders remained closed.

Half of the respondents said the fall in enrolments had affected them significantly, half said it had caused staff cuts, and 25 percent of school respondents said their hours had been reduced.

"My hours have halved along with our administrator's hours reduced by 10 hours and our director's hours have reduced by eight hours," wrote a survey respondent.

"Three staff have been made redundant including the homestay manager. This role is now being shared," said another.

More than half the respondents (56 percent) said the sector needed more financial support from the government, and 25 percent wanted clearer information about when the borders might reopen.

"If we don't get any new students in 2022, our department will only have 10 students remaining," said one of the survey's respondents.

"Many students will go to the first country which opens its border to international students. Our German market which had taken years to build up, will be gone altogether, as will South America," said another.

ISANA executive director Chris Beard said the survey highlighted the pressure on frontline staff, and those staff were critical for ensuring the international education industry could bounce back once the borders reopen.

"At the moment we still have those people, they do a fantastic job, but they're under pressure and this has reputation impacts down the track," he said.

"We need to retain capacity to facilitate a really good student experience, because these students are sojourners, they are temporary visa holders, they go home and they report their experience to their family and to their networks in their home countries."

Beard said survey respondents wanted more government support so institutions would not have to make so many cuts.

He said they were also anxious to see the government's plan for restoring the international education industry.

The director of the international college at Middleton Grange School in Christchurch, Colleen Steyn, said the past year had been difficult.

"It's pretty tough to be brutally frank," she said.

"We're all a bit frazzled. We haven't had much of a break since 2019 because of students onshore and not being able to go home and so I think most of us in the industry are feeling a little bit jaded."

She said most schools, including hers, had made cuts to staffing and staff hours and nobody knew when students would be allowed into the the country again.

"That's the biggest concern is that there's absolutely no guideline or timeline of anything so we're all just floundering trying to keep things going but we don't have anything to work with," she said.

The University of Otago's international director and the chair of Universities New Zealand's forum of international managers and directors, Jason Cushen, said the survey underscored the challenges facing the sector.

He said they were looking forward to a proactive and innovative government response.

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