15 May 2023

Student visa applications growing, but not everywhere

2:00 pm on 15 May 2023
A university lecture hall full of students. Generic, file image.

A recent report from Education New Zealand said of 25 countries enrolling foreign students, New Zealand was in the bottom three for the diversity of its foreign student population (file photo). Photo: Unsplash / Miguel Henriques

New study visas are being issued at a faster rate than before the pandemic began, but polytechnics and schools are missing out, visa figures show.

In the eight months from the start of September last year to the end of April this year, Immigration New Zealand approved 32,445 study visas for new students.

That was 10 percent more than in the same period in 2018-19, when 29,616 were approved.

The figures include fee-paying international students, but also thousands of dependents of people with work visas.

The figures showed 21 percent of new study visas were for Chinese students, up from 17 percent in the same period pre-pandemic, and a further 14 percent were from India, down from 16 percent.

The next largest share of new visas was six percent, for students from the Philippines and from South Africa, figures little different to pre-pandemic.

A recent report from Education New Zealand (ENZ) said of 25 countries enrolling foreign students, New Zealand was in the bottom three for the diversity of its foreign student population.

It said 80 percent of Aotearoa's foreign students came from just nine countries, compared to 12 or 13 countries for Australia and Canada, and more than 30 in some European nations.

The report said India had become the single largest source of foreign students in New Zealand's main competitor nations, the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States and Canada, with combined visa approvals more than doubling since 2019.

In the same group of countries, study visa applications for Chinese students had fallen 28 percent, apparently due to restrictions on travel into and out of China.

Nigeria had become the second-largest source country for the UK and Canada, and Nepal was the third most significant source for Australia.

The ENZ report said the number of people with valid study visas reached a low of 12,791 in August last year and by March this year had reached 33,438, about half the pre-pandemic peak figure.

The report said the direct value of international education to the economy fell from $3.7 billion in 2019 to $800 million last year.

It said total visa approvals, including visa renewals, from December to February for schools, polytechnics and private tertiary institutions were half what they were for the same period before the pandemic while universities' approvals were four percent higher.

Changes to residency and work rights were thought to be behind the polytechnic decline, while schools' enrolments were hampered by the loss of experienced international education staff during the pandemic.

Universities New Zealand chief executive Chris Whelan said universities were satisfied with the number of foreign students arriving in New Zealand, but "not so much" with the diversity of source countries.

He said universities could not diversify on their own and visa requirements needed to change to encourage more enrolments from a greater range of countries.

Current rules meant New Zealand was missing out on the strong growth that competitor nations were seeing from countries such as Nigeria and Nepal, which had a large middle class and an appetite for overseas study, Whelan said.

He was not surprised that there had been no improvement in diversification, despite plans for it.

"I'm not surprised because some of the settings around immigration and visas make it very easy to carry on going to existing markets but somewhat harder to get into new markets.

"So some of the things that we would really like to see are aligning our financial evidentiary requirements - so the requirement for students to demonstrate they've got the money to study here, make it a little bit more aligned to the countries we compete with, where sometimes students are coming from banking systems where they can't meet the requirement."

Whelan said he would also like to see the return of a study visa category that made it easier for students who completed initial school or English-language courses to extend their visa to further courses.

ENZ director of insights Marie Clark said it would take time to increase the diversity of source countries, and other nations were still relying mostly on students from China and India.

"The primary focus is to regain the strength and base of the sector and the easiest way to do that is to go to markets where we know there's strong interest in New Zealand. That's not to say that providers aren't looking at other countries," Clark said.

"In the long term I think they will be able to diversify but you need to have a solid base to diversify from and that's what we're hearing quite clearly from the sector."

Clark said ENZ was looking closely at where competitor countries were sourcing their students from.

"If you look at some of our competitor destinations, they've got growth in other Asian nations. If you look at Australia they've got growth in some of the Latin American countries, so we're monitoring that really closely just to see whether that could translate to New Zealand providers."

Though new enrolments were higher than before the pandemic began, the total number of foreign students was not expected to reach pre-pandemic levels until 2030, Clark said.

Schools International Education Business Association executive director John van der Zwan said some schools were trying to re-establish their international enrolments using entirely new staff.

Demand for New Zealand had also changed, with some families wary of sending their children to a country that had locked-down foreign travel for nearly three years, he said.

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