Host Families NZ would normally have about 600 students staying with hosts across the island nation; now they are down to just a fraction of that.

“We’re definitely experiencing a challenging time,” company representatives Hui Li and Giovana Reay said.

During the pandemic, there has been greater interest in homestay from domestic students. However, this hasn’t come close to replacing the international student homestay numbers.

“The economic and social impact of no incoming students is significant”

Last month, the New Zealand government announced it would begin to allow 1,000 international students back into the country, starting with 300 in April. This initiative is targeting undergrads who are close to completing their degrees.

Previously, New Zealand announced that 250 masters and doctoral students would be permitted to return. Universities New Zealand has estimated that the “best case” scenario will be 10,000 international students starting higher education this semester.

Homestay programs will not benefit from this decision, as university students tend to stay in alternative accommodation options. Host Families NZ works with 247 institutions, whose students are primarily studying English or attend colleges.

Across New Zealand, some language programs have permanently closed, while others have stopped operating temporarily. The rest have seen a dramatic reduction in the number of students. It has impacted the employment of school administrators, teachers and homestay staff.

“It’s very sad to see an institution close down – it has a massive impact, including the loss of teaching jobs,” Li said.

“The global impact of Covid-19 and travel and border restrictions are providing challenges for the English language sector in New Zealand,” acknowledged Kim Renner, executive director of the country’s language school association, English New Zealand.

“We attract more students focused on an English plus tourism experience than on a pathway to further study. Most tend to stay, at least initially and sometimes for their entire enrolment period, with homestay families.

“The economic and social impact of no incoming students is therefore significant and affects a much broader range of stakeholders than homestay providers,” Renner said.

The English language sector was highlighted in the government’s $52m package for the international sector in 2020.

“We are working closely with government agencies on the return of international students and to ensure our quality member schools are able to welcome students as soon as possible.”

Prior to the pandemic, Host Families NZ employed 20 people to match and manage hosts and students. Now they are down to just three staff.

Nevertheless, officials at the homestay firm are confident that students will eventually return and are taking steps to be ready when they do.

Instead of placing students, they are completing home inspections and making sure that host paperwork is up to date. In addition, they are reaching out to agents and schools not already on their roster to secure contracts in the future.

They recognise that it may be a slow comeback. “We expect that we will have to survive this year without international students,” Li said. “We can’t expect the border to reopen tomorrow.”

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