Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF

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How are international student numbers recovering so far in New Zealand?  

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • New Zealand enrolled about 120,000 international students before the pandemic
  • Prolonged border closures during COVID have seen the number of student visa holders fall below 15,000 as of 31 July 2022
  • The country reopened its borders four months ago and thousands of international student applications have come in since then

New Zealand’s borders opened again on 31 July 2022 after more than two years of pandemic-related closure, allowing the country’s schools and universities to begin welcoming international students again. The question on everyone’s minds since then is, “How quickly will international enrolments recover?”
New immigration data show that thousands of students have applied for upcoming programmes in New Zealand since the borders opened, but the applications volume also suggests that New Zealand educators will welcome substantially fewer students in 2023 than they did in 2020.


Before the pandemic, New Zealand was considered one of the most competitive and popular English-language destinations, even though international enrolments had begun to decline in 2017. That decline was due in part due to a “planned rebalancing” strategy.
The extended border closure in 2020 through mid-2022, however, took enrolments down to levels far beyond what anyone could have imagined. In revenue terms, the NZ$1.2 billion in fees that international students paid to New Zealand institutions and schools in 2019 fell to NZ$963 million in 2020 and then to NZ$594 million in 2021. According to Immigration New Zealand, there were only 14,639 international students with valid study visas as of 31 July, when the border reopened – a massive decline from the reported 60,000 visa holders as of early 2020.

More than 12,000 visa applications so far

Is there a rebound in sight? According to Immigration New Zealand, 12,258 international students have applied for visas between the 31 July border reopening and 19 November 2022. Of those applications, decisions have been made about 7,731 of them, with “more than half of our decisions made in under four weeks and almost all decisions (95%) made within eight weeks.” This counts as relatively speedy visa processing in the context of a year in which international students have faced long visa processing waits for destinations such as Australia, Canada, and the US.
Still, given that students will need to be on campus for the first semester of the academic year this coming February and March, it is likely that 2023 enrolments will not reach anywhere near the level they were at in early 2020.
New Zealand also faces heightened competition for students given Australia’s recent expansion of its post-study work rights allowances for graduates of degrees in select fields. In September 2022, the Australian government announced the following expanded work rights:

  • Select bachelor’s degrees will provide international students with a four-year post-study work permission – up from the current limit of two years.
  • Select master’s degrees will now afford students up to five years of work experience after graduation – up from the current limit of three years.
  • And graduates of select PhD degrees will be able to work for up to six years – up from the current limit of four years.

In New Zealand, the longest duration of time that international students can remain in the country after studying is three years (for graduate students).

A blended future

Over the past couple of years, the Ardern government has indicated an ambition to expand online and offshore provision of New Zealand education alongside a goal of increasing the quality of on-campus options. The campaign behind the strategy is anchored in messaging encouraging students to “study with” New Zealand – whether in the country, offshore, or online.

The government has also invested heavily in a “Global Pathways” initiative whose target market is international students who would consider studying in their own country and then transitioning to on-campus programmes in New Zealand.

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