International students are worth $2 billion annually to the economy.

"If you want to put it crudely, they are seen only as cash cows," said Professor Manying Ip, a professor of Asian studies at Auckland University.

"New Zealanders' attitudes towards international students today is very different to the days when we had the Colombo Plan, when they really wanted to share the benefits of New Zealand education with the developing world."

International students support 45,000 jobs, pay more than $600 million in direct fees and the travel and tourism industry further benefits from their visiting friends and families.

Professor Ip says the value of international students are being equated by schools to getting a new IT room or a swimming pool, rather than any of the non-monetary benefits they bring.

Even local students feel uncomfortable in the presence of too many international students, another academic says.

Last year, head of Elam Art School Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, said: "I know from my time in Canterbury, you can have too many international students and the Pakeha students take flight."

Professor Ip says although her colleague's comments were regrettable, it was not an unknown kind of feeling.

"I try to convince my colleagues of the other benefits, like international connections and cultural awareness, to a university in an isolated country like New Zealand, but it has been a struggle."

This year, Auckland University has 908 new international students, who will be paying tuition fees of more than $20 million.

Vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon says it is grossly inaccurate to say international students are being treated as cash cows.

Dr Christopher Tremewan, the university's international pro vice-chancellor, said issues sometimes arose because professors failed to distinguish between international students and immigrant students, who did not have to take strict language tests to enter the university and often struggled with the English language.

Professor McCutcheon said international students were valued and helped to build overseas connections.

The university's international graduates remained keen to maintain contact.

The Institute of International Education ranked New Zealand as having the 15th largest international student population in the world.

But Massey University sociologist Paul Spoonley says New Zealand would be ranked number one if the calculation was based on population.

"It is sometimes unfortunate that students are being treated here more as paying customers rather than guests in the country," Professor Spoonley said.

"International students are changing the culture and look of New Zealand classrooms, and it's really up to us whether to see that as being a problem or an opportunity."

Embracing international students would help broaden New Zealanders' horizons and help local students survive better in the new globalised environment.

WHAT THEY ARE WORTH

* Valued at more than $2 billion annually in foreign exchange earnings.
* Worth $22,000 an international student.
* Support 45,200 jobs.
* Pay NZ Government $242 million in taxes.
* Visiting friends and family spend $130 million.

(Source: Education New Zealand)