A furious Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman is unhappy with the time it is taking his department to process student permits and is demanding his officials come up with a plan to speed things up.

Immigration New Zealand says about 2500 applications lodged this year have yet to be assigned an officer, and it is taking an average of eight weeks for manual applications to be processed at the Palmerston North branch, which oversees 97 per cent of onshore permits.

Some education providers say they have students who have been waiting up to five months for permits, and still have not heard back from Immigration.

"It is an unacceptable situation, and we have to get it sorted out," Dr Coleman said yesterday.

He had found out about the delays only after speaking to export education providers at a conference in Auckland last week.

"Quite frankly, I am furious with officials that I haven't been alerted to the situation in Palmerston North."

Dr Coleman said he had told Immigration NZ chief Nigel Bickle, who is overseas, that he wanted a meeting to resolve the issue as soon as Mr Bickle returned to the country.

"We have to at least match Australia in processing times or we will be losing students, and that is not acceptable," he said.

"I'll be wanting to sit down with Nigel Bickle and see some real plan that would make a difference ... There has to be some real improvements here."

Dr Coleman said students considering overseas studies often compared New Zealand to Australia, and processing delays could affect the country's reputation as a study destination.

An education agent said he had seven students from South Korea and Japan who had been waiting since March for permits to be approved. They were attending school on visitors' permits.

The students would be returning home for the school holidays next week and were worried they could not return to New Zealand because they did not hold the right permits.

"It is really unnecessary stress. How can we tell parents overseas that we can deliver good education to their children when the country cannot even process immigration permits properly?" the agent asked.

"It is really a challenge for us to market New Zealand as a quality study destination when our Immigration department is like a Mickey Mouse club."

Immigration NZ said the processing delays related mainly to applications that had been lodged manually.

"The current waiting times for manual applications in Palmerston North are unacceptable, and the minister has conveyed this to the department," said acting Immigration NZ head Stephen Dunstan.

The delays had been caused by a surge in student permits - with 21,523 applications lodged in February and March, the start of the academic school year.

Mr Dunstan said the department was committing extra resources to the office and transferring applications to other branches to speed up processing.

Palmerston North processed 60,172 applications between last July and May, of which 49,188 were for student permits.