Universities New Zealand estimates around 21,000 international students would normally be preparing to commence their studies on campus at this time of year but at best it estimates it will be less than half that number.

“We’re still not absolutely sure how far down we’re going to be in our overall numbers for this year,” said UNZ chief executive Chris Whelan.

“At the moment, we know we’ve got about 13,000-14,000 students still in New Zealand”

“At the moment, we know we’ve got about 13,000-14,000 students still in New Zealand, but a good percentage of those students won’t be continuing – they will have been finishing up during summer or are still here pending going home so we’re still waiting to see. Worst case, it might be about 7,000 or 8,000 students starting this semester, best case it’s going to be around 10,000.”

Beyond higher education, Immigration New Zealand figures suggest there are 8,201 international students at school level, 7,136 at private tertiary and 6,662 at polytechnic level. With an additional 3,354 international students with unrecorded education providers, there are currently 38,954 international students in the country, according to RNZ.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern suggested that the country can “expect our borders to be impacted for much of this year” at a news conference this week as it continues to pursue “travel bubbles” with Australia and the Pacific.

“But the rest of the world simply poses too great a risk to our health and our economy to take the risk at this stage,” she said.

It is estimated in excess of 5,000 international students (holding valid international student visa) are still stuck outside NZ borders, with the government recently announced plans for a staged return of 1,000 international students into the country from April.

Only students who are returning to the study are able to apply for places in the program, meaning new international students are ineligible, however it’s a welcome development for the sector which pre-covid generated $4.5 billion annually to the economy.

“It’s so fantastic to get them coming into, it’s a little late and certainly in smaller numbers than we’d like. But it’s a step in the right direction,” said Whelan.

The announcement is part of the federal government’s proposed long-term strategic recovery plan for the international education sector, a plan that has been welcomed in theory but with concern due to a lack of consultation with the industry.

“We didn’t play any role at all [in the development of the strategy]. It was a government recovery strategy and the advice that was given to government is that really if it’s going to go forward, it needs to include providers like this,” Whelan said.

“There are different elements that are sensible but actually other elements like diversifying into different countries, and moving more and more qualifications online, they’re really just not going to work in practical terms.

“There’s a number of workshops starting over the coming months where I think government has listened to us and they are going to start engaging to work out how to recalibrate so that there is more comfort in the plan and a lot more support for it,” said Whelan.

Another focus for New Zealand’s universities in 2021 will be the commencement of the Global New Zealand Education Pathway partnership with NCUK.

The initiative is designed to prepare international students for a New Zealand university education via pathway courses delivered in person at one of more than 80 global accredited centres around the world. Students also receive a guaranteed offer to study with one of New Zealand’s universities upon completion.

The NCUK-Education New Zealand partnership is both the biggest university sector-international education collaboration to date, and the first time the government has facilitated international students beginning their New Zealand study offshore.

Whelan said the program was developed prior to Covid-19 however the pandemic cemented its importance in the future of international education in the country.

“It was always about helping students transition to studying in an English speaking country… making sure they have the foundation skills so when they start studying with other New Zealand students that they’re going to be as ready for success is as possible.

“[The NCUK-Education New Zealand partnership] has real benefits in getting students actually underway with their studies”

“We still see a real need for that. But we also see that it has real benefits in getting students actually underway with their studies and ready for when borders do reopen.”

Intakes for the qualifications begin in March.

Meanwhile semester one on campus activities begin at most universities on February 22 with orientation for students, followed by classes commencing on March 1.

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