As Minister of Education in 1989, one of the smallest legislative changes I made had one of the biggest impacts on our education system.
Against some opposition, I proposed amending the Education Act to allow fee-paying international students to enrol in our public schools, polytechnics and universities.
I reasoned that in a geographically remote country, international students would bring cultural diversity and wider global perspectives. Some would opt to stay after their studies, while others returning home after a positive experience here could act as ambassadors for our country. As an export-oriented country, international education would become a valuable revenue earner.
The international education sector has achieved each of these objectives to a greater degree than even I had hoped for. Before the pandemic, international education was earning $5.2 billion a year for New Zealand, with over half of that – $2.9b – contributing to Auckland's economy.
One of the many costs of the Covid-19 pandemic has been its devastating impact on our international education sector. Auckland alone has lost $1.3b a year in expenditure and tuition fees, along with the vibrancy, talent and energy that international students bring to our region.
With the Government's recent announcement that New Zealand will reopen fully to international students from August, the task ahead of us is to rebuild the sector. All of us have a role in this, in offering returning students manaakitanga – our welcome and support, and aroha nui – our respect and affection.
When we look to market Auckland and New Zealand as a destination for international students, the most effective tool is word-of-mouth: what students tell their families and friends back home about their experience in our city and country.
So, let's welcome back international students and the diverse experiences and perspectives they bring to our country, which enriches our classrooms, lecture theatres and laboratories by providing a different way of thinking about and tackling problems.
Outside our classrooms, international students shop at local businesses, support our domestic tourism industry and often seek part-time employment, which is essential for businesses suffering labour and skill shortages.
The international students I've met have been eager to immerse themselves in our communities and make the most of what New Zealand has to offer.
A great example is an upcoming study group, where 15 students from the City University of Hong Kong will arrive on our shores for a six-week cultural and language immersion programme. Led by the University of Auckland's English Language Academy, these students will participate in cultural understanding and English language courses, and connect with locals by volunteering in the community and environmental initiatives.
Another example is Canadian student Ryan Chow, who is the president of AUT's Student Volunteer Army. Not only is Chow overseeing the activity of more than 54 student volunteers in this role, he has also founded a consortium of three clubs at AUT, designed to enhance the student experience. He's now spearheading a new Youth Film Festival, designed to energise and inspire upcoming generations.
Chow is one of many international students who have seized the educational and extra-curricular opportunities available in New Zealand, creating positive social outcomes in our communities.
From a global perspective, international students help create business opportunities and fuel innovation across our key sectors. Many choose to stay in New Zealand and start their own businesses, using their knowledge from back home to tap into overseas markets. And many who have had positive experiences here go on to become lifelong informal ambassadors for Aotearoa.
As we recover from Covid-19, international education will play a significant role in showing the world our innovative ways of thinking, learning and living. With over half of New Zealand's international students based in Auckland, they can help create international exposure for our largest and most culturally diverse city.
These global learners have chosen Aotearoa as their OE destination, so let's give them the same warmth that many of us have experienced in our overseas travels.
In return, we will gain friends and supporters who open doors for us all around the world, strengthen our global relationships, and enhance our reputation as a world-class and inclusive city where talent wants to live.
• Phil Goff is the mayor of Auckland.