The number of Chinese students enrolling in New Zealand schools has plunged by more than 1000 this year, amid record numbers of last-minute cancellations.
The drop of an estimated 20 to 30 per cent is already hitting school budgets and may force some to ask Kiwi parents to pay more for "extras" such as school camps.
It comes at the same time as other signals that the China-NZ relationship is souring, including postponement of a planned campaign to attract Chinese tourists to New Zealand and delays in a planned China visit by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Patrick Gale, principal of the country's biggest school Rangitoto College, said 71 Chinese students had enrolled to study at the college this year but 10 per cent cancelled their enrolments.
"We have never had this many cancellations before," he said.
John van der Zwan of the Schools International Education Business Association (Sieba) which represents 350 schools, said China accounted for 50 to 60 per cent of New Zealand's 12,400 school-level overseas students last year, and their numbers were down sharply this year.
"Based on our conversations towards the end of the year and what we are hearing anecdotally from some of the larger schools, it could be 20 to 30 per cent down on last year," he said.
Using last year's numbers, that's a drop of around 1200 to 1800 students.
"No one really knows why," he said. "I'm sure the current conversations around possible trade problems with China, and the telecoms conversation, isn't helping."
First-time student visas issued to Chinese students across all NZ education sectors have however been declining since early 2017, suggesting that the main causes are China's slowing economy, tighter NZ immigration rules and educational reforms.
First-time visas issued to Chinese students dropped from 10,524 in the year to June 2017 to a low of 8116 in the year to last September. They bounced back slightly to 8232 in the year to January despite a tentative decision in November to bar China's telecom giant Huawei from bidding to roll out a 5G mobile network in New Zealand.
Schools, private training institutes and polytechnics are worst hit. Chinese student visas dropped during the year to December by 30 per cent in private institutes, 10 per cent in polytechnics and 5 per cent in schools.
Universities and English language schools, which are less dependent on China, say their overseas student enrolments this year are stable or up slightly.
Gale said some Chinese students were choosing to study outside Auckland because of a policy change last year that allows students to work in New Zealand for two years after completing courses below degree level outside Auckland, but only for one year in Auckland.
He said proposed reforms to the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) were also creating uncertainty.
Secondary School Principals Association president Mike Williams agreed that the NCEA changes were scaring some Chinese students away.
"Last year the debate around NCEA made the newspapers over there, and it doesn't take much to cause a bit of uncertainty," he said.
He said schools used overseas student revenue for "extras" such as teacher aides and subsidising school sports and camps. At his school, Pakuranga College, Chinese students were down about 20 per cent and that drop was "softened but not totally compensated" by slight growth from other countries.
"We have had to trim our cloth appropriately to live within our means," he said.
"There has been a bit of tightening up - not so many extra things that we were planning to do."
In the polytech sector, Manukau Institute of Technology chief executive Gus Gilmore said this year's overseas student applications were down about 30 per cent mainly because of the changes in Auckland post-study work rights.
Craig Musson of Independent Tertiary Education NZ (Itenz), which represents private institutes, said the decline from China was being compounded by an Immigration NZ decision to process most offshore visa applications in Mumbai, India, which has caused delays as the new Mumbai staff get up to speed.
Kim Renner of English New Zealand, representing English language schools, said the language schools' market was much more diverse than other sectors with Japan and Brazil now the two top source countries.
Universities NZ chief executive Chris Whelan said early signs were that international student numbers at universities were "reasonably well up on last year".
Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the decline in Chinese numbers reflected "competition from other destinations, China improving its own education system and the growth of international schools in China".
"It appears that other countries are seeing similar trends and I am not concerned at this point."