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New Zealand’s International Education Industry in 2021 – Evolution or Stagnation?

15 January 2021

To finish off last year, I published an article overviewing 2020 and the challenges (and prospects) that 2021 presents. I talked about the volatility of the immigration industry, the difficulty faced by employers due to their ongoing inability to access migrant labour and the efforts made by Immigration New Zealand to accommodate these challenges.

To start this year, I aim to shed light on the unique opportunities that international education presents to New Zealand in 2021 – one of the only Covid19-free nations on the planet. These gains, of course, can only be fully realised once the border opens for this cohort.

There hasn’t been much traction in this space since the first March 2020 lockdown as the borders have remained shut. The international education industry seems to have stagnated. But there may be ways to transform this stagnation into evolution, a metamorphosis at a scale not often seen in New Zealand’s immigration history.

In my 16 years of experience in this landscape, I have seen the ebbs and flows of different policies and their effects. I am taking the liberty of gazing through a crystal ball and I say – 2021 will offer something special, you just need to have the eye to see it!

International education contributes $5.1 billion to New Zealand economy – it is our fifth-largest export. As of September 2020, there are about 50,000 foreign students in the country, less than half the normal number. The government is pouring in $51.6 million from the Covid recovery fund to help stabilise New Zealand’s international education sector.

New Zealand’s attractiveness to the rest of the world can already be witnessed by the fact that Immigration New Zealand website is getting the highest number of enquiries of all time. As we enter into 2021, we are finding resilient and innovative ways to achieve results from pre-Covid days. This means it’s time to look at things differently. There are some lessons we bring forward from 2020 and some we will need to make predictions about and plan accordingly.

Here are my thoughts:

1. ‘A steady attraction’

New Zealand, even without much ‘marketing’ effort, would be the “hottest” international education destination for overseas students in 2021 due to the (mostly) absent coronavirus from the community. This ‘steady attraction’ to the country can only be maintained if NZ allows for favourable immigration policies in the post study work visa space – to allow students to work after finishing their qualifications. After all, NZ has always been marketed as a ‘study-to- work-to-live’ destination.

2. Perceptions are important

There is a generic perception that New Zealand’s immigration is strict, sought after and unpredictable. This means NZ needs to be careful about its image and make visible efforts to uphold welfare of current international students. NZ’s brand needs to be protected and carefully re-projected going forward. We risk losing our ‘humanitarian’ and ‘fair’ image due to the rollercoaster and haphazard policy changes that happen so often and have been implemented in the near past.

3. The power of ‘digital’

Covid19 has unleashed the strength that the digital world carries. Our meetings, our consultations, our friendships, our promotions, our messages, our marketing, our sales – have all gone digital. Innovative digital ways have kept businesses in operation for the past 10 months. It has outranked what physical activities could achieve – cost savings, wider reach and flexibility.

International education has a massive opportunity by going digital, but the complexities of the visa system are yet to cater to such a model. The open work rights after study, is a big driver for students to come to NZ. Online delivery model, as it stands currently, poses a significant risk for students in terms of their eligibility for post study work visas. Unless Immigration NZ aligns their post study work visa policy to account for online study model, starting studies online will continue to face resistance and scepticism from students.

4. Course choices

Let’s be honest here – the course you choose to study doesn’t always relate to what you end up doing in life, but when it comes to immigration, it really does influence your career outcomes! This decision (choice of course) has never been more important. It is without a doubt in my mind that immigration will converge to residencies being granted for roles where there is a true labour shortage. So, it implies that a student’s course choice should speak to this.

5. “Conventional partnerships” – a fading trend?

Education providers need to be looking out for robust partnerships with agencies that not just recruit students for them but also provide unique value add services like leading their marketing direction, immigration partnership and career guidance to the students. This will allow them to remain ahead of the competition.

So, this stagnation (as it could feel to many currently) can be transformed to evolution in this crucial sector. It is not just the government making these changes, all stakeholders including the education providers, must look at doing things differently. Only through this collective effort can the health of New Zealand’s international education industry be restored and flourished.

“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”

–Peter F. Drucker

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