Export education, as it is called when developed countries invite foreign students to come to them, is one of today's most lucrative and competitive industries, particularly for countries where English is the common language.

New Zealand competes fiercely with Australia, Canada and the United States in this market which is now our fourth largest export earner, worth $4.28 billion a year. But our investigation of the industry this week suggests immigration, not education, is the primary purpose of many who are coming here.

To attract more foreign fee-paying students, New Zealand allows them to work up to 20 hours a week. And they are allowed to stay on after their courses to work while they seek permanent residency for themselves and their families. While waiting, they get temporary work visas sponsored by an employer and become extremely vulnerable to exploitation.

In a case before the Employment Court last month Indian students working for the owner of dairies and liquor stores in the South Island were working seven days a week, paid below the minimum wage, sent to work in other towns with no travel or living expenses and threatened with loss of their visas if they refused or complained.

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Their employer was also Indian but a survey has found foreign students are vulnerable to rip-offs not only in their own ethnic group. Among 483 cases studied by doctoral researcher Danae Anderson of the AUT business school, 36 per cent of employers were New Zealand European, against 39 per cent Indian and 17 per cent Chinese. These findings add to the concern that foreign students on temporary work permits are being preferred to young New Zealanders in some jobs not because the foreigners have greater cultural affinity and aptitude with the employers or customers but because they are less demanding of their rightful pay and conditions.

Bad as their treatment here may be, they told Anderson, "it's better than India". They stay in hope of being granted permanent residence, a release from virtual servitude to their sponsors. Meanwhile, the education they are ostensibly here to receive continues to give its own cause for concern. Much of it is provided by private training establishments that in the past have accepted students with poor English and practically ensured they pass.

Since a more rigorous English test and a code of practice was imposed on them last year, some have had more than 30 per cent of student visa applications declined. They include 10 of the country's 16 polytechnics.

International students comprise nearly half of the migrants in the skill category, which is just over half our annual immigration, so the concern goes further than education standards or employment law enforcement. Immigration officials have warned that students on work permits are lowering the value of skilled immigration for New Zealand's economic improvement. They account for a high proportion of jobs in sectors where skill shortages do not appear.

Some of this employment has been stopped by steps taken by the Government in October but more needs to be done to ensure "export" education is not doing the country more harm than good.