Destination New Zealand

Destination New Zealand


New Zealand may be best known for its wine, sheep and spectacular scenery, but it is increasingly seeking to present itself as an affordable, high-quality alternative to traditional education destinations like the United States, Britain and Australia

When Josephine Huong Le was in high school in Hanoi, she had her sights set on studying in Switzerland. Then came the financial crisis, so she began investigating more affordable options.

While she was considering the possibilities, she happened to watch ‘The Lord of the Rings, the J R R Tolkien epic filmed in New Zealand. The stunning natural landscape so impressed Le that she began exploring study possibilities there.

“It’s cheaper than Switzerland,” said Le, now in her second year toward a bachelor’s degree in commerce and administration at Victoria University of Wellington. “They have less people. It’s quiet and peaceful. It’s affordable.”

New Zealand, with a population of just 4.4 million, may be best known for its wine, sheep and spectacular scenery, but it is increasingly seeking to present itself as an affordable, high-quality alternative to traditional education destinations like the United States, Britain and Australia.

With international education now New Zealand’s fifth biggest export, annually worth 2.5 billion New Zealand dollars, or $2 billion, the government wants to double the sector’s economic value in the next 15 years. The expansion is seen as a way to increase university revenue, internationalise the institutions and bolster the ranks of the country’s skilled work force.

But the country faces stiff competition from its nearest neighbour, Australia, which has long been a favoured destination for international students.

To help New Zealand’s universities better compete, the government has embarked on a multipronged approach in recent years, from reducing fees for international Ph.D students to opening more visa offices in Asia.

Nearly 100,000 international students were enrolled in New Zealand universities, private colleges and schools in 2010, the last year for which government figures are available. This tally included 19,678 international students in universities, a figure the government has projected could rise to 50,000 by 2025.

Last year, the government established the Education New Zealand agency and allocated an additional 10 million dollars to its international education promotions budget.

In a paper released last September, the government outlined goals to be achieved by 2025, including doubling the number of international postgraduate students to 20,000; increasing the transition rate from study to residence for international graduates; and increasing the number of offshore international students from 3,000 to 10,000.

Derek McCormack, chairman of the international policy committee for Universities New Zealand, which represents the country’s eight universities, said the arguments for attracting more international students were “mainly financial.”

McCormack said that compared with Australia, New Zealand was underperforming in the international market and that there were concerns that other major participants, like the United States, were bolstering their marketing.

“Thus there is a view that as the competition heats up, New Zealand needs to coordinate its efforts to strengthen its international profile and be much more aggressive in marketing and recruitment, even just to maintain its position,” he said in an e-mail.

With more New Zealanders moving abroad and the nation’s population aging, the government also sees international students as an opportunity to strengthen its skilled work force.

The government entices students to stay on after they graduate by offering a one-year graduate job search visa. If the students finds a job relevant to their qualification, they are then eligible to apply for a graduate work experience visa for up to three years.

McCormack, who is also the vice chancellor of Auckland University of Technology, where full-time international student numbers have increased from 800 to 2,400, from 2003 to 2011, said one-fifth of international students now go on to become New Zealand residents.

New Zealand has charged doctorate students the same fees as their domestic counterparts since 2005, a policy that has resulted in the number of international Ph.D students growing by more than 300 per cent from 2005 to almost 2,800 students in 2010, according to a report by Universities New Zealand.

The immigration department is also making it easier for students in India and China to apply for visas. It opened an office in Mumbai last year and established visa application centers in Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

Grant McPherson, the chief executive of Education New Zealand, said China, Japan and South Korea were New Zealand’s top markets for international students. “They all have potential to grow,” he said in an interview.

He said the agency was considering which countries to focus on for future growth, with Indonesia, India and Vietnam identified as potential growth markets. “We’re at the moment looking at our Asean strategy” McPherson said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has 10 members. “If you look at all of those markets the potential is incredibly high.”

Victoria University of Wellington has been one of the more active movers in the international market, with 3,000 of its 22,000 students coming from more than 100 countries. That figure includes about 100 Vietnamese students who study at its Ho Chi Minh campus.

The university’s international student numbers rose by 9 per cent in 2011 and 8 per cent in 2010, said Rob Rabel, pro vice chancellor (international). “We’ve seen in the past couple of years sustained growth,” he said.

The largest group of international students at Victoria University last year came from China, followed by the United States, Malaysia and Vietnam.

Like all New Zealand universities, Victoria University charges international students much higher fees than domestic students — 22,000 to 24,000 dollars a year for undergraduates, compared with 4,000 to 5,000 for domestic students — and Rabel said the revenue from international student fees had become critical to the university’s budget.

With Australia suffering a recent drop in international student numbers because of factors like a stronger currency and a number of violent attacks on Indian students in 2009, it could be an opportune time for New Zealand.

“New Zealand might pick up some of the losses that Australia has experienced,” said McCormack, the Universities New Zealand official. “However, Australia is a class act in the international education market from whom New Zealand could learn much.”

McCormack said some institutions were concerned that increasing the percentage of international students by too much could diminish the experience for local and foreign students.

Such “overloading,” he said, “risks ruining the experience and satisfaction that international students have.”

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