By ALAN PERROTT education reporter

On any weekday lunchtime, hundreds of mostly Chinese students aged in their teens to early 20s mill around central Auckland.

Queen St is a great place to attend school if you enjoy shopping, but not if you want to stretch your legs and shoot a few hoops.

For some, it is a struggle just to eat their lunch. Han Rafe, a 19-year-old from Shanghai studying at the New Zealand International College, spends much of his 40-minute lunchbreak clutching his cold dinner with about 100 fellow students waiting to use either of the two cafe microwave ovens.

He is the embodiment of the huge changes that have transformed the CBD over the past five years.

This week, Auckland City released a report on the booming education industry that now occupies about 20 per cent of inner city rental space, and yesterday began an investigation into its growing impact on services, public transport and rental accommodation.

With his friend Jun Long, Han considered what the city offered.

"It would be good to have a playground or a place to have a rest," said Han. "We have no place to do any exercise or sit, so sometimes you feel pain in your muscles."

The pair have lived in Auckland eight months, but have met few locals. "There's not too much mixing," said Jun. "Only if you're living in a homestay or maybe out shopping, you might meet some people.

"Maybe it would be good to have Kiwi and international students study together."

Both spent $18,000 on their one-year course aimed at getting them into Auckland University, where they plan to spend up to four years studying business.

Their tuition fees contribute to the $450 million overseas students are estimated - conservatively - to pour into Auckland each year.

Nationally, the export education industry earned $1.7 billion from about 80,000 students last year. This is predicted to leap to $5 billion within the next 10 years. In 1990 the industry made only $85 million.

Tracey Qiu, 26, is about to complete a four-year arts and commerce degree at Auckland University.

Although she has three part-time jobs, she is worried that she will have to ask her parents for more money.

On top of the cost of her first year preparatory course, Tracey has paid $2000 for each of the eight papers she has taken each year.

Transport expenses and bus timetable hassles have pulled her into the inner city where she said her classmates pay an average of $480 each week for studio apartments.

She is currently sharing a tiny flat in Emily Place with three others and splitting the $400 weekly rent.

Tracey does not see herself as a cash cow for the economy, but said considering how much they pay, courses popular with foreign students could be better designed and include more practical work.

She is worried about the image projected by the growing "slacker" element among international students.

"They're too young, not grown up. Too many come here rich because their parents give them a lot of money, but they don't know how to handle it. Then they drive too fast and crash. People think we're all like that, but we're not."

Auckland's bus services are a daily gamble for Bai Xue Fei, 24, who has missed so many classes due to late buses she now arrives at school an hour early.

But she said the situation is improving, with more weekend and late night buses. Not long ago she would finish work at her part-time job and the last bus would have already left.

Bai would like a good job to pay her bills. "There are not many opportunities to get a job. We end up in restaurants but only for $6 an hour."