It was once alm' />

Export education has grown to become New Zealand's fifth biggest export earner, worth more than $2 billion a year to the economy.

It was once almost exclusively an English language study industry, with students coming mainly from Japan. But today, students come from all over the globe to take courses ranging from business to massage therapy and sports.

Education New Zealand says growth has been especially evident in the past 10 years.

In 1999, there were 8233 first-time student visas issued. Last year there were 30,726.

Immigration New Zealand says it approved nearly 73,000 student permits last year - but that does not include students who arrived on a visitor's permit for courses three months and shorter, which often include English language studies.

Despite the world recession, the industry continued to grow, generating $597 million in tuition fees paid directly to educational institutions, $242 million for the Government's coffers through taxes, and about $1.3 billion for local businesses.

Last year, the industry generated employment for 45,200 New Zealanders.

This was because of the sector's "counter-cyclical nature", said Education New Zealand chief executive Robert Stevens.

"In a recession when jobs are scarce, people turn to further education to improve their skills or delay entering a competitive employment market."

Traditionally, students came from China, South Korea and Japan - but numbers from these countries are falling. The industry was hit hard in 2002-2003 when crimes committed on and by Chinese students in New Zealand made headlines back home, leading to a sharp decline in students coming here.

However, diversifying the student market has led to continued growth.

Last year, Immigration NZ approved 8200 students from India to study here - a 42 per cent increase from the previous year.