The borders are open again - but where are international students?“There are people who are really

Slow uptake in re-enrolments shines light on issues faced by international students.


By Justin Hu (he/him)

Last week, international borders fully reopened after nearly two years of restrictions - however, there’s mixed emotions among international students. The New Zealand International Students Association’s president, Vikram Selvaraj, said the reopening was a milestone, but there would only be a small trickle of offshore students returning initially. “Although the border is reopening, it's not new students who are coming in. It's offshore students who have already applied before Covid.” Figures from mid-July showed 229 AUT students had already arrived in New Zealand before the reopening. But over 250 students overseas still had cases “in progress”. China, Canada, India and Malaysia are the top countries of origin for offshore students. Education providers aren’t expecting new students until next year, as visa processing has resumed well into semester two. Meanwhile, student numbers have been permanently affected by the two-year border closure. Selvaraj added that international student numbers may not return to the numbers seen in 2019 for some time - a sentiment that’s echoed in the tertiary sector. Last year, the chair of Education New Zealand - the government agency tasked with overseeing the recruitment of overseas students - told a parliamentary select committee that it could take up to 10 years for the sector to recover. More recently, the agency’s chief executive, Grant McPherson, said there needed to be more resilience within tertiary education. “While there will be a considerable focus on bringing students back to study in the next few years, the lessons of the pandemic have reinforced the need for diversification in order to build long term resilience,” McPherson told Stuff. Selvaraj told Debate that there was ultimately a “mix of emotions” about studying in Aotearoa among international students - both abroad and those already in the country.


“There are people who are really happy to come back, but many are still uncertain... Some just want to finish their next six months online, in order to stay back home and work,” Selvaraj said. He added that the past year had made many overseas students tired of the uncertainty that came with complex visa restrictions, evolving Covid variants and managed isolation requirements. Tertiary institutions in Aotearoa have struggled financially throughout the pandemic without tuition fees from international students. International fees are roughly double what domestic students pay and the tertiary sector had become reliant on them before the pandemic. Earlier in 2021, AUT’s chancellor said “systemic underfunding” of tertiary institutions had left the sector vulnerable after fees from foreign students dried up. The institution’s finance chief said the uni had been forced to offer voluntary redundancies and hit pause on new capital projects amid the drop in revenue. Meanwhile, AUT’s new vice-chancellor Damon Salesa told Debate that the wider tertiary sector could “do better” in ensuring foreign students had value from their education. In mid-July, the university said the reopening of visa processing would be “unlikely to fundamentally shift the university’s financial position” this year. Selvaraj agreed with sector leaders who believe the reliance on international student fees is a result of systemic issues that depended on central government “planning properly”. He argued that the reliance meant some education providers - which could include universities, polytechnics or other tertiary institutes - had treated students like “cash cows” prior to the pandemic. “When we pay $35k or $40k a year, we expect a standard - and [often] we're not even getting the minimum in terms of support systems,” he said. “Sometimes we just get treated as a cash cow. I literally get calls from students that feel like all communication drops [from their provider] once they’ve paid their tuition fees.”


Selvaraj said he also felt action on key issues for international students had been slow. These included revisiting and reforming the post-study work visa, plus greater accountability for racism and discrimination on campuses. The student association president said a lack of mental health support was another critical issue that students faced while in New Zealand. Selvaraj said students from Asia needed more culturally competent mental and sexual health support. “The reason why international students don't reach out to support systems directly is often because of cultural differences... Counselling is a taboo word in Asian countries,” he said. Prior to the pandemic, the vast majority of student visa holders were from Asian countries and Selvaraj said better services needed to be offered across the board. “We’ve talked about students who come with English as a second language and they're not supported. Students who are feeling homesick and they don't have someone to talk to. Students who have failed an exam and there’s shame to talk about it, or students who are financially struggling.”


Free counselling and mental health support is available to all AUT students. Contact the student hub for more information. Where To Get Help (24/7) Asian Counselling Helpline: 0800 862 342 (text 832) in ten languages. Youthline: 0800 543 354. (text 234) For rainbow support: 0800 OUTLINE Central Auckland crisis team: 0800 800 717; North Shore crisis team: 09 487 1414; South Auckland crisis team: 0800 775 222.