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New Zealand signals that border closures will remain in place into 2022

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The New Zealand government will not commit to a timeline for the return of international students to the country beyond an initial group of 400 students approved to come into New Zealand this month
  • Industry stakeholders are frustrated with continued border closures and warn that agents are sending students to other countries and that New Zealand is gaining a reputation for being unwelcoming
  • There are fears that the ELT sector may not be able to withstand the damage from COVID-related border closures
  • A new venture has been announced – FutureLearn – that will “provide online courses from a range of New Zealand education providers on a shared platform to more than 15 million learners worldwide”

The New Zealand government has announced that borders will likely remain closed, for the most part, to international students in 2021, as it continues to pursue its COVID “Elimination Strategy.” It also makes no promises about 2022. In an open letter to the international education sector written 21 May, Education Minister Chris Hipkins says, “While we cannot promise students any specific timeframes for entry in 2022, it is important that we are ready to act quickly when the opportunity arises.”

Some students will return this year, but not many. Mr Hipkins says the government “will continue to support the return of students while border restrictions are in place.”

So far 1,250 students have been approved to return in stages over the coming months, and 400 MIQ (managed isolation and quarantine) spaces have been reserved for incoming students in June. Mr Hipkins says “the government welcomes the sector’s assistance” in getting the rest of the approved students in after that. The initial group of 400 seems to be a test for the plan, as the government’s wording is that “depending on the outcomes of this group MIQ booking, further ringfencing of MIQ spaces for international students could be considered.”

The letter will offer faint hope to the international education community in the country, whose peak bodies held workshops earlier this year to brainstorm a plan for recovery. These workshops surfaced profound frustration with continued border closures and alleged lack of transparency from the government about when and under what conditions they could reopen. A summary feedback document released after those workshops stated,

“The sector feels that it is not being heard or understood by government. The sector’s perception is that government agencies are acting in isolation and providers are excluded from critical decisions, resulting in lost opportunities and revenue.”

“High quality, high value” proposition remains in place

The stated priority for internationalisation in New Zealand is “high quality, high value.” This comes out of the 2018 “rebalancing” of the country’s strategic goals for hosting international students. The goals of the New Zealand Education Strategy 2018–2030 are to build up the sector through an emphasis on delivering, and establishing a reputation for, excellent student experience.

At the time, Minister Hipkins said the new strategy represented “a shift from international education as a revenue generating export industry to one that incorporates domestic students, boosts global skills and enriches our country socially and culturally.” In this year’s 21 May letter, he writes that, “I do not want to see [the Strategy’s] goals set aside in a rushed rebuild of the sector we had in place … I am less concerned about numbers of students than about the quality of experience we can provide them.”

Sectoral stakeholders ask for greater transparency

Before Mr Hipkins’ letter, New Zealand’s peak bodies in the international education sector had held workshops aimed at informing the country’s International Education Strategic Recovery Plan. The workshops identified key “themes” that suggest serious concerns with the government’s decisions on international students during at least some periods in the pandemic:

  • Concerns regarding the border and managed isolation
  • Frustration with government decisions and lack of agency alignment
  • Loss of capacity and capability across the sector
  • Declining international reputation of New Zealand
  • Impact on the domestic sector
  • Online learning

The peak bodies’ feedback document considers “the continued closure of the border” and “the difficulty of securing places for international students within limited MIQ capacity” to be the most pressing concerns. There is also a call for “greater transparency around the conditions and scenarios under which opening may occur.” The sector wants to be able to run MIQ facilities dedicated to international students under government supervision or failing that, for the government to open up more places for international students in existing MIQ structures.

Another worry is the lack of alignment between incoming cohorts to align with semester and programme start dates, which is jeopardising educators’ ability to manage their enrolment pipeline.

“The lack of certainty on border reopening is impacting on the sector’s ability to restart the pipeline, undermining relationships with agents and international partner institutions, and impacting New Zealand’s competitiveness.”

The sector recommends a government–sector-initiated Return to Market plan that could include “ministerial missions and education trade delegations to key markets, public relations campaigns, and marketing campaigns.”

Concern that agents may be abandoning New Zealand

All sub-sector representatives in the workshops reported that agents who would have normally sent students to New Zealand are now sending them to other countries that have open borders, and that agents are not sure whether they will return eventually to sending students to New Zealand. The sector identified this trend as “the loss of a key channel-to-market that may take years to recover.”

International partnerships are also at stake, say sector stakeholders, and “New Zealand is now seen as unwelcoming …. Relationships that have been carefully built over many years are now at risk.”

ELT providers may not survive the year

ELT stakeholders participating in the workshop said that there is a risk that “the entire English-language subsector will not exist at the end of the year.” Many providers have had to close and many more are not sure what they will do after June.

Investment in online intensifies

Though they are reeling from continued border closures, New Zealand’s international educators are expanding their reach into international markets through new online offerings. This includes FutureLearn, which Education New Zealand announced today. FutureLearn “will provide online courses from a range of New Zealand education providers on a shared platform to more than 15 million learners worldwide.” Offerings include “short courses from universities, English language and TESOL educators, vocational/institutes of technology and edtech educators including virtual reality developers and game designers.” Education New Zealand explains the purpose of FutureLearn as follows:

“Through this initiative, we’re bringing a New Zealand education to those who can’t be onshore due to COVID-19 restrictions. We’re also tapping into a wider audience of learners looking for online options, and developing a pipeline of learners seeking a pathway to study in New Zealand.”

Education New Zealand notes that,

“This initiative supports the Government’s Recovery Plan for our international education sector. Part 3 of the Plan led by Education New Zealand, Transforming to a more sustainable future state, has accelerated the diversification of products and services, one of three goals set out in the New Zealand International Education Strategy.”

For additional background, please see:


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