Canterbury's almost $400 million export education industry may come to a grinding halt in the aftermath of the earthquake, where more than 30 international students are still missing, presumed dead.
There were 1412 international students enrolled in Christchurch schools at February 22, but foreign embassies say hundreds have left the earthquake-hit city, many without any intention of returning either to Canterbury or New Zealand.
"Some of the students have been really so badly shaken by the experience they just want to go home and don't even want to think about having to come back," said Korean consulate spokeswoman Rebecca Kim.
South Korea is the largest international source of students for Canterbury, contributing more than a third of non-tertiary enrolments there. Two Korean students are believed to be buried under the collapsed CTV building that housed King's Education language school.
Ms Kim said her embassy had helped hundreds to return home, issuing urgent travel documents to many who lost their passports in the quake.
"It is too early to have a picture of how many students might want to change their study plans," said Neil Scotts, the Education Ministry's senior international manager.
"At the moment, we are focusing on support for recovery efforts and on working with providers to enable learning to resume for as many students as soon as possible."
He said education agencies were cross-checking data sources to help locate students and confirming their safety status.
Mr Scotts said international students paid nearly $100 million in tuition fees last year in the Canterbury region, and a 2008 Infometrics calculation put the total foreign exchange value of enrolments, including living expenditures, at $380.6 million.
The largest fee recipients were the University of Canterbury and Lincoln University, followed by private English language schools.
Mr Scotts said 6612 international students were enrolled for tertiary education in the first four months of last year but he did not have the 2011 data.
"In some cases, the enrolment records have been destroyed, and therefore determining an exact number of international tertiary students at the time of the earthquake is difficult," he said.
Korean teenager Julia Park, who was at Canterbury University's orientation when the earthquake struck, said she had changed her mind about enrolling.
"I haven't stopped crying since the earthquake. I want to find a university back home where I can be close to my family," said the 19-year-old.
"I'm scared and just want to leave as soon as I can."
Malaysian High Commission first secretary Siti Jalilah Manap says most of the 390 Malaysian students in Christchurch have also left, or are requesting to be transferred to schools outside New Zealand. "Many of them no longer feel safe here and want to go to Australia."
An education agent, who did not want to be named, says most agents will stop recruiting overseas students for Christchurch schools because of the uncertainty, and also because some private schools in the CBD have indicated they will be suspending admissions this year.
The Ministry of Social Development has set up a help desk at the Auckland central library to help international students who are relocating to Auckland. The ministry's international student manager, Jessica Phuang, says affected students and their families can also contact her directly on 027 478 2155.
CLASS OF 2011
INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS IN CHRISTCHURCH SCHOOLS
* Christchurch schools: 1412 enrolled.
* Tertiary: about 6600
* Top four source countries: South Korea, Japan, China and Thailand
* Worth: $380.6 million
(source: Ministry of Education)
WHERE MISSING STUDENTS ARE FROM
* South Korea
* ThailandBy Lincoln Tan Email Lincoln