Tertiary institutions are worried a pause in visa processing means few foreign students will make it into the country next year.
They are also waiting for the government to announce changes expected to reduce the work and residence rights associated with some courses.
There are about 19,000 full-fee-paying foreign students left in the country, about a quarter of the usual figure, and it is not clear how many will arrive next year.
The border is opening to foreigners at the end of April but there is a hold on processing most temporary visas until August.
Independent Tertiary Education president Craig Musson said some of its members could be facing a third consecutive year with no new international students.
"We just really need to have some certainty so we can start working. Look, there are students that will come for the second half of the year in some markets and in some programmes but there may be some providers that miss out again for the whole year and that will be really a difficult point in time for them," he said.
He said institutions that were entirely reliant on foreign enrolments, such as English language schools, were in a desperate situation.
Immigration and education agent Arunima Dhingra said there was too much confusion about when and how the borders would reopen to students.
"We can still ride on the wave of being Covid-free particularly compared to the rest of the world if we are able to come out with very clear messaging for those students and saying 'this is when we are going to be opening for international students coming for these courses, this is what it's going to look like' because at this stage you go through one hoop and you get stuck on the other," she said.
In addition to the border and visa issues, the government is reorienting the sector so there is less emphasis on work and residence rights and more emphasis on high quality courses.
But decisions are not expected until next year.
Dhingra said the government was walking a fine line.
"We are competing with the big giants, you've got Australia, you've got US, you've got Canada and the UK where there are pathways for students so if we are suddenly going to say that we are going to be hoity-toity and just let you study and spend thousands of dollars and then that's it, there's nothing else for you, you're not going to get a lot of people interested in coming to this part of the world," she said.
Waikato Institute of Technology chief executive David Christiansen was more optimistic.
He said reducing work and residence rights would almost certainly reduce the number of students in his sector, but there would still be demand.
"Those work right changes, for our sector they will change total volumes but for all those other students that were coming out, doing English language, doing degrees, doing postgrad, you know, we're still the same destination with the same reputation, the same value," he said.
"I'm optimistic. It will be a regrowth, it will take a bit of time but I think the demand will still be there."
Meanwhile, Christiansen said he hoped Immigration New Zealand would process visas for some groups of students before August.
"The question is, is it a hard 'we're not going to have any international students till August' or is it 'we're setting this benchmark now and then we'll start working on the settings and the priorities and start to bring things over the next few months to a bit more clarity," he said.
He said Wintec had 1200 foreign students before the pandemic but this year it had just just 400.