The clock is ticking on international education. If the Government doesn't make some decisions about it resuming soon, they risk significant damage to our education system.
The number of international students in this country is already well down as a result of the Covid-19 border controls. In that way, international education is like any other sector that relies on the movement of people across borders.
The difference is that students arrive in the country at certain times, primarily at the start and middle of each year. Providers have long since given up on 2020; the big question now is whether they will be able to recruit and bring students in for 2021. If they can't, then staff and service cuts are bound to follow, as has been reported in the news this week.
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Some people will say that serves the providers right. They will say schools and universities have become "too dependent" on international education. The flipside is that international education has allowed us to have a much stronger education system than would otherwise be the case.
The presence of international students allows providers to offer a greater range of subjects, more experienced teachers and tutors, and a higher quality of education than would have been possible with our smaller group of domestic students only. Surviving on our domestic resources alone would be a significant step down.
Education providers run on very tight margins. Most public and private institutions are not-for-profit entities and they plough all the income they get back into improving their services to students.
There is very little margin to lose.
International education has been hugely beneficial to New Zealand more generally. As well as providing a source of foreign exchange and employment (it's our fifth largest export earner and employs roughly 40,000 people), it builds very strong people-to-people links that are hugely important for small, trade-exposed countries like New Zealand.
When young people spend their formative years learning in our country, they take their New Zealand experiences and friendships right through their adult lives. Many of them end up as high ranking officials or successful businesspeople in their own countries, and they tend to look out for New Zealand as they go.
I was lucky enough to be the Minister responsible for international education for nearly seven years.
I visited countries that send their young people to New Zealand for education, and heard many stories about how they have carried that New Zealand experience with them.
One of my favourites was meeting a very senior Malaysian Minister in Sarawak. This gentleman wasted no time rocking up to tell me how much he loved New Zealand and how he still treasured the memory of his time at Lincoln University in the 1970s. His eyes shone as he told me about his tramping and trout fishing. Ever since, he has worked positively for the New Zealand-Malaysia relationship.
Once, in Guangzhou, we held a joint alumni function with all the New Zealand universities. It was hard not to be caught up in the enthusiasm of hundreds of excited young Chinese who treasured their Kiwi experience, as they built their start-up companies and their careers back home.
Many people may not be enamoured with China currently, but because of international education we are well placed with the generation that will be the Chinese leaders of the future.
We have a growing network of passionate unpaid Kiwi ambassadors all over Asia and the Americas.
Our big exporters like Fonterra, Zespri and the tech companies often hire Kiwi alumni too.
This Government has always been squeamish about international education, as it is sadly about any number of New Zealand industries. The Coalition parties range from ambivalent to downright hostile to the concept of allowing young people to study here and have post-study work rights, even though most students go home after their education. It is time to put that negativity aside for the good of New Zealand and our education system.
The Government needs to quickly design a path to ensure international students from safe countries will be able to return to study in 2021. That could include a schedule of testing before and after they arrive, and opening up new quarantine facilities.
Unfortunately, it isn't happening. Providers are in the dark. Students and their families are prepared to pay for quarantine and isolation, providers are prepared to manage it with their boarding and accommodation facilities, but there is no way to engage.
In some ways it is understandable that politicians don't want to have this discussion. They are very busy not wanting to even talk about changes at the border over the next eight weeks, despite the fact those changes don't have to come into effect until January.
That is fine for politicians seeking election. It's not good for New Zealand's interests into the future.
It must be possible for senior political leaders to put together a non-partisan group to sort out a practical plan for the return of international education, for the good of the country.
At the very least, they should stand up and tell people what their indecision about the border now means for education cuts in 2021.
Steven Joyce was Minister for Tertiary Education for nearly seven years. Joyce Advisory Ltd has education clients in NZ and Australia, but his views on international education date from his time as Minister.