Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

NZ-Australian relations in rare downturn, as Brownlee heads to Australia to seek answers

Ishani Mathur, 16, faces a fee rise from around $11,000 to around $66,000 a year for her planned medical or law studies in Australia if the proposal goes ahead. Photo / Supplied
Ishani Mathur, 16, faces a fee rise from around $11,000 to around $66,000 a year for her planned medical or law studies in Australia if the proposal goes ahead. Photo / Supplied

New Zealand-Australia relations have hit a rare low point after the latest Australian crackdown on expatriate Kiwis, which could see up to 6000 New Zealanders pay three times as much to attend university across the Tasman.

Foreign Affairs Minister Gerry Brownlee heads to Australia today to seek answers from his counterpart Julie Bishop over the proposal, in his first major assignment in the portfolio.

It is the latest in a series of Australian Government changes which affect expats' immigration, benefits or study entitlements and was again announced with little or no warning, angering the New Zealand Government.

Brownlee is not only raising concerns about proposed changes to university fees, but about the broader erosion of Kiwis' rights in a country which is considered New Zealand's closest ally.

"For decades we had an arrangement where pretty much each country treats the others as if they were citizens," he said.

"We've had changes continuously since 2002, and this is another evolution along the way."

The minister is also checking whether any further policy changes affecting New Zealanders are in the pipeline. Australia's proposal to remove subsidised study for Kiwis comes hot on the heels of a tightening of citizenship rules, and there are concerns further measures could be on the table.

But first, Brownlee said it was important to get an understanding from Bishop about the extent of the proposed changes to university fees and how many Kiwis they would affect.

Around 8000 Kiwis were studying in Australia, and up to 6000 of them could be captured if subsidies were scrapped, he said.

Under existing transtasman arrangements, most New Zealand citizens are treated like domestic students in Australia and their tertiary study is subsidised.

As part of just-announced education reforms in Australia, these subsidies would be withdrawn and New Zealanders would become full fee-paying students.

Foreign Affairs Minister Gerry Browlee heads to Australia today for talks with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop.
Foreign Affairs Minister Gerry Browlee heads to Australia today for talks with his Australian counterpart Julie Bishop.

However, they could be given access to student loans, which have been off-limits for most expat Kiwis until now. It is believed that the changes will not affect students who are already enrolled.

Prime Minister Bill English went further than Brownlee, saying he was deeply unhappy with Australia's policy change, which caught New Zealand by surprise.

"There is now significant uncertainty about the Australian attitude towards [the] traditional arrangement," he said.

"We want a serious discussion with them about where they're headed with this policy, rather than announcements that are made either without telling us or at short notice."

Labour's education spokesman Chris Hipkins said the transtasman "bromance" enjoyed by former Prime Minister John Key and Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull appeared to be over. The Australian Government had "walked all over" New Zealand again, he said.

Oz Kiwi spokesman Tim Gassin, whose organisation advocates for expats in Australia, said fees would rise by 300 per cent to 500 per cent if the proposals went ahead.

The changes could also put pressure on the New Zealand education budget because many expats would return home to study, he said.

The proposals would hit people wanting to study law or medicine the hardest. They would face fee increases of more than 400 per cent.

Shyam Mathur, who lives in Auckland, said his 16-year-old daughter Ishani was in Year 12 and wanted to study law or medicine at an Australian university where there were more places available in medical schools than in New Zealand.

If the proposed changes went ahead, her tuition fees would rise from around $11,000 to around $60,000.

"So obviously it's going to impact that decision. Student loans are not interest-free as they are here in New Zealand. Assuming she does medicine or law, it is going to put her back $300,000 or $400,000."

- NZ Herald

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