New Zealand proposes changes to work rights for international graduates

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The New Zealand government has introduced proposals to revise the country’s rules for post-study work rights for visiting students
  • Under the proposed changes, students who have completed non-degree courses of less than two years will no longer be able to work after their studies
  • However, students who have completed qualifications at the bachelor’s level or above will be eligible for up to three years of post-study work

International students going to New Zealand to study will likely encounter a new set of work and immigration rules beginning next year as the government works at balancing two goals: (1) reducing net migration and (2) encouraging skilled international graduates to join the country’s labour force.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway has introduced a set of proposals for new regulations with varied implications for students studying in short-term non-degree courses and those pursuing programmes at the bachelor’s level or above. Essentially:

  • Students who have completed non-degree courses of less than two years will no longer be able to work in New Zealand;
  • Students who have completed degrees at Level 7 (bachelor’s) or above will be eligible for three years of work with any employer in New Zealand.

The aim is to cut off a certain immigration stream: people who enroll in short-term courses because they want to work and ultimately obtain residency in New Zealand. The proposed changes dovetail with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s electoral campaign promise to cut net migration numbers by up to 30,000.

As well as changes to post-study work rights, new rules for spouses and dependent children of postgraduate international students in New Zealand are imminent. Postgraduate students will have to be studying in an area specified in the Long Term Skills Shortage List for their partners to be eligible for a work visa and for their children to be eligible for free schooling.

Four proposals

The four proposals for which the government is now inviting public feedback intend to:

  1. Remove employer assisted post-study work visas at all levels;
  2. Retain a one-year post-study open work visa for non-degree Level 7 or below qualifications;
  3. Provide a three-year post-study open work visa for degree Level 7 or above qualifications;
  4. Require students completing non-degree Level 7 or below qualifications to undertake at least two years of study to be entitled to post-study work rights.

Implications for students

Beginning next year, students enrolled in non-degree courses at Level 7 or below will have to complete two years of study to be eligible for post-study work rights. They would then be eligible for a one-year post-study open work visa (that is, a visa that allows them to engage in any work with any employer). After that, Mr Lees-Galloway explained, “They’ll have to apply for a new visa that’s likely to be labour-market-tested and that will mean they have to have a skill that is genuinely in demand in New Zealand.”

The elimination of visas tied to employers will happen across the board (i.e., for both non-degree and degree students). The idea here is to end the ability of unethical employers to exploit international students. Mr Lees-Galloway told the New Zealand Herald, “There have been too many cases where migrant workers have been subject to exploitation because they are dependent on a particular employer to stay in the country.”

As for students completing bachelor or higher degrees, they will now be eligible for a three-year work visa. Previously they had been – like all New Zealand’s international students – eligible for an initial one-year open work visa and then a two-year employer-assisted work visa that allowed them to work in the same area as their qualification.

Universities New Zealand Executive Director Chris Whelan applauded the changes, saying, “These changes simplify things for students, while encouraging them to get qualifications that will open doors to more meaningful jobs.”

Negative impact predicted for some sectors

While university educators may be pleased with the proposals – especially since these should not impact their enrolments – not all sub-sectors are expected to fare as well. The online document outlining the proposals for public feedback notes,

“We know from data that an increasing number of international students studying at sub-degree levels or doing short graduate or post graduate diplomas or certificates (including in particular those studying generic subjects such as Business Studies) have been gaining residence, when they might otherwise not have been considered suitable for the residence programme had they not studied in New Zealand. These trends have been identified as factor in the gradual decline in the average skill level of new residents over the last five years.”

A main intent of the new changes is to block this immigration channel. The document explicitly states that the country’s private training establishments (PTEs) and Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (ITPs) will likely lose enrolments (since prospective students will now be aware of more stringent requirements governing post-study work rights).

According to Mr Lees-Galloway, “Providers who are providing a low-quality education, who exist solely to provide a pathway to residency, they may not do so well. I think that’s good for our education sector and it’s good for New Zealand…Our international education sector should be about delivering quality education and exporting that to the world. Instead, part of the sector has become little more than a vehicle for people to gain a backdoor to live in New Zealand.”

Times Higher Education, meanwhile, notes that the proposals spell more bad news for PTEs, “which are already losing domestic students …. some have posted huge deficits and face demands to repay teaching funds because they failed to meet student quotas.” It speculates, too, that, “Private vocational colleges and language schools may also be disadvantaged.”

New Zealand’s popularity

Mr Lees-Galloway added that, “In New Zealand, most international students at PTEs are planning to stay here after study. That’s not the case in other countries.”

In fact, a relatively high proportion of students studying in New Zealand want to become residents there.

As the Minister has pointed out:

“According to the 2016 International Student Barometer:

  • Of the 72% of international students who have a plan for after their course of study, 41% plan to stay in New Zealand. That is up from 35% in 2014.
  • In comparison, just 22% of international students in other countries plan to stay in those countries after study
  • 89% of international students say opportunities for long-term employment or residence where a factor in coming to study in New Zealand, compared to 79% in other countries.”

International education is currently the country’s fifth largest export sector.

For additional background, please see:



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