Old habits die hard.

With Aotearoa’s borders reopening to 5,000 international students last month, public tertiary institutions are showing little or no signs of change from their pre-COVID-19 treatment of international education as a cash cow. Public statements from Universities New Zealand, along with Vice Chancellors and CEOs, appear to have centred on the size of the demand and how quickly we can get as many students as possible into the country.

Last week, Wintec chief executive Dave Christiansen told Stuff “it would be great to have the border open to everyone sooner rather than later.” In the same article, Vice Chancellor of Waikato University, Neil Quigley, described the government’s approach as “cautious” and said “my hope is that next year New Zealand is much more open and Immigration NZ develops its capacity and focus towards international students. Their ability to scale up the issuing of visas will impact how quickly we can get back to the numbers we once had.”

While many international students had remained in Aotearoa over the last two years completing qualifications they had already started, COVID-19 did provide pause for thought as some tertiary institutions were faced with reduced  international student revenue.

Last year, Te Tāhuhu o te Mātauranga | The Ministry of Education consulted on a draft policy statement entitled ‘high value for international education’ which followed on from ‘New Zealand’s International Education Strategy 2018-2030’, which “signalled a move from international education as a revenue generating export industry, to one that focuses on quality of education, and higher value markets.”

However, the Te Hautū Kahurangi | Tertiary Education Union submission lamented the 2021 document’s “contradictions relating to, on one hand, an intended shift away from treating international education as a revenue generating export industry toward excellent ākonga/student experience, and, on the other, a persistent focus on immediate economic value and the pursuit of offshore/online markets.”

In 2020, TEU’s ‘Voices of the Sector Forum’, which included Vice Chancellors, Chief Executives, and their representatives, agreed that “the impacts associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the weaknesses of the tertiary education system and the duty of care for international students.”

The forum also stated that “the benefits of tertiary education extend beyond economic factors; we must work together to re-imagine how the goals of international education are to be achieved. Te Tiriti, our shared history, te reo Māori, and tikanga are our points of difference and are integral to ensure Aotearoa delivers quality education and experiences.”

TEU’s Te Pou Ahurei | National Secretary Sandra Grey says, “it would be a pity if, two years on, we are all too easily falling back into the old habit of seeing little but dollar signs from our manuhiri and using international students to plug holes caused by things such as rising costs and static funding that require much bigger and more well thought out solutions.”