7 Apr 2021

Rebuilding foreign student numbers will take 10 years, MPs told

6:05 pm on 7 April 2021

Education New Zealand, the government body charged with attracting foreign students, has warned MPs it will take 10 years to rebuild the $5 billion-a-year international education industry.

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It was recognised before the pandemic that New Zealand was too dependent on China and India for students and needed to diversify, Steve Maharey says. (file pic) Photo: 123RF

Appearing before Parliament's Education and Workforce Select Committee today, Education New Zealand chair Steve Maharey said New Zealand enrolled about 120,000 foreign students a year before the pandemic, which was probably close to the maximum the country's education institutions could cope with.

He said it would take about a decade to rebuild numbers to pre-pandemic levels.

"In Christchurch for example it took about 10 years to go back to the kind of situation they were in before," he said, referring to the slow recovery of foreign student enrolments in that city after the 2011 earthquake.

Maharey's comments followed questions from committee member and former Southern Institute of Technology chief executive, National Party MP Penny Simmonds.

She said universities and polytechnics were expecting big deficits this year and would continue to suffer financially if they did not get a significant intake of foreign students.

"If we don't start getting some students in soon and certainly if we don't get them in by first intake 2022 we're going to see this going out for another two years," she said.

"I just think we're not appreciating how long this is going to carry on through the tertiary sector," she said.

Maharey said that before the pandemic it was recognised that New Zealand was too dependent on China and India for students and the industry needed to diversify.

He said the industry also needed to attract more high-value students and focus on students whose main goal was education, not immigration.

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Penny Simmonds: "I just think we're not appreciating how long this is going to carry on through the tertiary sector." Photo: National Party supplied

Potential growth seen for Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia

Education New Zealand chief executive Grant McPherson said there was potential for growth in enrolments from countries that already sent some students to New Zealand, such as Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia.

He said New Zealand enrolled few students from Indonesia and that country was another possible source of growth, as was Brazil.

McPherson said Education New Zealand was monitoring what other countries were doing in terms of allowing the entry of foreign students and the United Kingdom and Canada were open to international students.

He said 5000 foreign students were studying online with New Zealand universities and polytechnics.

Maharey said before the pandemic Education New Zealand had identified online education and education provided offshore as potentially large growth areas for New Zealand.

He said the country probably could not have accepted many more foreign students in-country.

"It would be probably a stretch to say that many more students than 120,000 could come into the country, maybe it would max out at 150,000, so there is not a lot of growth potential domestically but there is some," he said.

Maharey said Education New Zealand wanted to rebuild international education so it enrolled higher-value students from a wider variety of countries.

"Thinking that by 2022 this industry will be starting to come off the base it's at now and begin its process of rebuilding again towards something like 2033 when we could have a very different, very positive industry," he said.

RNZ has previously reported there are about 30,000 foreign students studying in New Zealand.

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