22 Nov 2022

Despite pent-up demand, schools play the waiting game on foreign student enrolments

11:31 am on 22 November 2022
A young man in a classroom, writing, in a file photo to illustrate foreign students.

File photo. Photo: 123RF

Schools are facing a number of hurdles as they try to rebuild their lucrative foreign student enrolments in a competitive market.

Principals say there is pent-up demand from some countries, but the pandemic has led to fewer agents to recruit students.

It's also making some parents nervous about sending their children overseas.

Schools' foreign fee income last year was about $90 million lower than before the pandemic and this year was expected to be even worse.

Macleans College principal Steve Hargreaves said his school had 150 foreign students and was turning others away because it did not have room for any more.

"There is some pent-up demand there. Families have been considering sending their children overseas to study for a couple of years, weren't able to do it, then the borders opened and they were able to take advantage of it straight away. So I think there really is still an appetite for international education, which is great," he said.

Hargreaves said Macleans retained some of its international staff through the period of border closure but many schools could not do that and they were unlikely to recover their enrolments so quickly.

In addition, the agents who recruited students to New Zealand had changed a lot.

"Quite a few agents folded, not being able to recruit international students for them means they have no income, so they folded. We kept in touch with our agents across the three years of the pandemic so we knew when businesses were about to fold and we kept in touch with those that stayed afloat," he said.

He said the mix of students was about the same as before the pandemic started, with most students coming from China, Vietnam and Thailand.

Hargreaves said agents had told him the pandemic had not dented demand for international education.

Mairangi Bay School principal Nathan Janes said the school had 12 foreign students and was trying to rebuild enrolments to its pre-Covid level of about 20.

"We are meeting agents every week, whether they're domestic agents or via zoom. We had some agents promoting our school at the latest Korean fair which was really positive. We've got a video ... our Chinese community are able to see that overseas marketing, our values and our school," he said.

He said the school promoted its diversity and its support for foreign students and their parents.

The school's international director Frank Jia said before the pandemic began it would turn away about 20-30 prospective pupils a year because it was over-subscribed but the market was much weaker now.

Jia said economic conditions in the main source country for primary school pupils, South Korea, were not good and enquiries had dropped by about 50 percent with many families opting for Australia, America and Canada instead of New Zealand.

He said China's zero-Covid policy discouraged some Chinese families from enrolling children overseas because of fears they would not be able to return to China easily if there were lockdowns in Chinese cities.

Meanwhile, the currencies of many countries in South East Asia and Latin America had weakened, which made international study a more expensive proposition.

Jia said Mairangi Bay was trying to diversify, including by providing placements for English teachers from overseas.

Schools International Business Association executive director John van der Zwan said there was interest from overseas, but the pandemic had made families more cautious.

"The markets of kind of waiting to see one, if schools are ready, and two, that we're not going to close up again," he said.

"But there's certainly interest and schools are getting enquiries."

Van der Zwan said only about half the schools that used to enrol foreign students were ready to enrol more.

"We lost a lot of international staff over the pandemic and that is certainly impacting on schools' readiness to get back. Some schools are taking a little bit longer to put themselves out there," he said.

"For those schools that are ready and have been actively getting out there and connecting with the agent networks again and re-establishing those links, I think the students are available. But schools have got to reassure those agents and those families that they've got all the right systems in place and that they've kept them over the pandemic," he said.