8 Feb 2023

Are foreign students coming back?

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 8 February 2023

International education used to be a massive earner for New Zealand. With the borders finally open, are foreign students returning?

A group of students stand in front of a building with MACLEANS COLLEGE written on the front in silver lettering. The students all wear a navy and white striped shirt and navy pants or skirts. Their principal stands to the right wearing a shirt and tie. They all smile.

 Macleans College principal Steve Hargreaves with international students in 2019 Photo: Macleans College/Supplied

Macleans College in east Auckland used to have more international students than any other school in the country.

Then, the pandemic hit and turned it upside down.

But principal Steve Hargreaves doesn't think foreign student enrolments will ever return to pre-Covid levels.

"We had about 400 full-time equivalent students, coming from all parts of the globe - South America, Europe but largely from South East Asia and China," he says.

"By the middle of 2022, we were down to about 110 international students."

International students, Hargreaves says, enhance the school's culture.

"We lost that element of the school, which was a pity, but we also lost that financial benefit. 

"What that required was for us to trim budgets. All of the faculty budgets were cut by 20 percent.

"That just meant that some of the nice things that we like to do, around field trips and extra resources and software programmes that have licensing fees, we weren't able to purchase or do."

Despite those benefits, he doesn't think the school could even accommodate 400 international students again.

"A school can only host international students if they've got space - you need classroom capacity to host students. 

"That's probably the biggest reason why we will not be going back to 350 or 400 international students in a given year, is because we don't have the space. 

"We have a huge amount of in-fill housing in east Auckland and that means Kiwis - domestic students - move into the zone. [Families] are purchasing these houses and students are looking for a high school to attend, so we take them."

RNZ's education correspondent John Gerritsen says the pandemic "smashed" the international education system.

"In financial terms, that's had a huge impact on tertiary institutions and on schools - prior to the pandemic they were getting more than a billion dollars a year in fees, and really that's more than halved.

"Most universities made a lot of cutbacks early on, they could see the writing was on the wall. Foreign students generally pay more than twice what a domestic student is worth to a university. I know in schools, they've had to cut back, a lot of them have lost their international student departments almost entirely.

"It's not yet clear how strongly the numbers will bounce back, so how quickly they're going to need to rehire those staff. But in some cases, the lack of staff in those places is going to make it hard to bounce back."

To hear more about how the international education sector is rebuilding, listen to the full podcast episode.

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