Sweeping Changes to the International Student Sector Receives Mixed Response from Students

Hot take: International students are more than just bags of money

A government proposal to overhaul the regulations around international students in the wake of Covid-19 has had a mixed reception from student leaders.

While changing the emphasis from quantity to quality was praised, changes to make it harder for international students to get work visas were criticised. Increasing the focus on distance learning and comments about prioritising richer students were also poorly received.

The international student sector has been hard hit by Covid-19, losing $600 million in 2020 so far. A released cabinet paper argued that rebuilding was an opportunity to address structural flaws in the sector.


“Quality Over Quantity”

The main proposal is to “move the focus from international education being a revenue generating export industry focused on attracting high volumes of students, to one that focuses on quality of education,” as well as attracting “higher value students”.

The report said that while the current policy of taking as many international students as possible has raked in the big bucks, “it also resulted in some issues, including poor student experiences while in New Zealand, and costly quality-related issues”.

Ryan Wei and Sabrina Alhady from the New Zealand International Students’ Association (NZISA) agreed with the “core of the statement”, while noting that the wording around student quality was “problematic”.

Ryan and Sabrina agreed that there are problems with the international student experience in New Zealand, saying that “students' wellbeing is too often not well looked after or taken into account”. They pointed to recent reports of poor communication between institutions and international students around Covid-19.

“Institutions should be giving further consideration to the Pastoral Code of Care as they have obligations to ensure international students’ wellbeing is cared for and in providing the relevant information for international students.”

Ryan and Sabrina said, “We are in support of the government's plan with the assurance that international students' wellbeing and welfare is the top priority.”

Natalie Faustina, Secretary of OUSA International Committee, disagreed that there were significant problems with the international student experience, saying that “I've found that New Zealand takes really good care of their international students”.

“I've noticed that they're always aiming to get more students but also try to keep the quality good. It's just that it can be hard to balance quality and quantity.”


Work Visas

The most controversial change proposed is to make it harder for international students to get work visas during their studies. The report said that these work rights “may need to be revisited” in order “to ensure that international students are not competing with New Zealanders for scarce employment”.

The report also raised “concerns about recruitment of students primarily motivated by work rights and pathways to residency”. It said that the government needed to “ensure that education quality, not work rights, is the primary driver of student attraction”.

Talking to RNZ, Paul Chalmers from Independent Tertiary Education New Zealand (ITENZ) said that the predatory practises that the government appears to be targeting with this proposal no longer exist.

"That industry has been pretty much tidied up over the last three to four years through the initiatives put in place by NZQA in tidying up what I would call rogue providers. There are none left in the market that I can tell."

Ryan and Sabrina told Critic that they “strongly oppose the removal of working rights for international students,” noting that it will “exacerbate labour exploitation”.

“International students are especially vulnerable to this exploitation and research has shown they often take low-skilled jobs not sought after by New Zealanders.”

They also objected strongly to the insinuation that international students are only here to study, saying that because of the “massive” contributions international students make financially to New Zealand, all international students should be given the opportunity to choose to stay in the country after graduating.

Arina Aizal, OUSA International Representative, agreed, saying that it would be “repulsive and a bad move for the future of New Zealand’s international education” if international students are not given the chance to stay after graduating.

“International students are not taking the jobs of New Zealanders. We have different skill sets and specialisations, and we contribute in different fields, some of which New Zealand needs.”

“Our talents and roles complement each other for the growing economy of New Zealand.”


Online Learning

The government report also received criticism for proposing that educational institutions shift to more online-based learning for offshore students, with students emphasising that online learning should only be a short term solution to the current crisis.

Ryan and Sabrina believe that the importance of the on-campus student experience to international students means that online learning “is not viable in the long term”.

“The service received by students per dollar spent is beyond comparable. Being in the country is a considerable factor shaping the international student experience.”

They said that online learning should be used to allow students to begin their studies offshore and then transfer into qualifications offered in New Zealand once it is safe to open the borders.

Arina agreed, saying she “believes some fail to understand that international students are not paying the University around $30k per year for just a degree. We are also entitled for the student services and student lifestyle that comes with it.”


Prioritising Rich People

While not included in the text of the report, Chris Hipkins, Minister for Education, has also signalled that the government would be looking to prioritise international students who have bags of cash.

Talking to RNZ, he said, "We'd like to see less of a focus on getting students in the country who have to work whilst they're studying out of financial necessity, to ones who can support themselves while they are studying."

This comment didn’t go down well with students. Ryan and Sabrina said that “as long as students can prove they have sufficient funds to sustain themselves in the country, there is no need for this proposed change”.

“Academic performance and the merits of the international student are significantly more important than monetary wealth.”

Arina said that this would be “a back step for the New Zealand Government if applied,” and told Critic that students are already expected to have $15,000 in the bank for proof that you can afford living expenses while in New Zealand.

“An international student’s value should not be tied to their funds.”

This article first appeared in Issue 16, 2020.
Posted 4:14pm Sunday 30th August 2020 by Charlie O’Mannin.