Let's open a front door to residency through education

Dr Michael Johnston
NZ Herald
16 June, 2022

On 31 July 2022, New Zealand's borders will fully reopen. This will be a welcome development for education providers, especially those in the tertiary sector. Like hospitality and tourism, New Zealand's education export industry has been hit hard by the pandemic response. The return of international students will provide a sorely needed cash injection for universities, polytechnics and other providers.

Even so, things will not be as they were before the pandemic. All international students, including those studying for university degrees, will have to meet more stringent financial thresholds to be admitted.

The Government has also announced changes to eligibility for post-study work visas. Previously, upon successful completion of their qualifications, international students were eligible for a visa entitling them to live and work in New Zealand for up to three years.

The post-study work visa will still be available to students studying for a bachelor's degree or higher, although they will no longer be renewable. The visa will no longer be available to those studying for lower-level qualifications unless their qualification is in an area on a green list.

Green list occupations are in areas of acute skills shortages, including construction, engineering, the automotive industry and early childhood and secondary teaching. Holders of green list qualifications will only be able to obtain employment in those occupations.

The green list targets some areas of acute labour shortage but there are also shortages in many areas that aren't on the list. For example, while many healthcare roles are included, nursing is not. There is a shortage of people working in this critical occupation, and nursing qualifications are available at the sub-degree level.

In fact, with a national staff turnover figure of nearly 60 per cent in the 2021-2022 financial year, labour shortages seem to be acute across nearly the whole economy.

Historically, eligibility for post-study work visas has been a significant drawcard for international students. Many have successfully applied for residency after taking advantage of the visa to live and work in New Zealand following their graduation. Education Minister Chris Hipkins has stated that the changes to post-study work visa eligibility are intended to close this 'backdoor' to residency.

A review of post-study work rights for international students was justified. In the past, some - although by no means all - private training establishments ran poor quality programmes solely to attract international students looking for a backdoor to residency. Some of these students went on to work in exploitative conditions.

However, the Government's changes are an over-correction. They will jeopardise New Zealand's international education industry and deprive our economy and society of potentially valuable immigrants. In 2021, the United Kingdom issued a record number of study visas. The Australian and Canadian international education industries are also once again open for business. New Zealand is already late to the party. Even if it wasn't, New Zealand is not the destination of choice for most international students. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia all boast more prestigious universities and more lucrative post-study work opportunities.

New Zealand, then, must leverage whatever competitive mechanisms it can to restart what was our fifth-largest export industry. Pre-pandemic, export education has been estimated to have contributed as much as $5 billion per annum to GDP.

Instead of second-guessing which areas will require more workers, the Government should allow international students who complete qualifications here to obtain employment wherever they can. It's not as if New Zealanders themselves lack employment opportunities, and many businesses are crying out for more workers.

One way to approach the issue would be to accredit selected tertiary study programmes as fast tracks to residency. Accreditation would be determined on the basis of the track record of a programme in getting its graduates into employment at or above a certain salary level. Ongoing accreditation would be contingent on maintaining that track record.

This approach would bypass the need for post-study work visas - we could do away with them altogether. Instead, on graduation from an accredited programme, an international student would immediately qualify for residence.

There would be no need to distinguish between degree programmes and sub-degree programmes under this scheme. As long as a programme of study reliably leads to employment, it is contributing to fulfilling a demand for employees.

An additional benefit of this approach would be to provide an incentive to education providers to ensure that their programmes are of high quality. Gone would be any low-grade programme that exists only to provide a 'back door' to residency.

Providers would also have an incentive to ensure that the students they admit to their programmes have a strong chance of graduating and of being attractive to employers when they do. A 'bums on seats' approach would quickly lead to de-accreditation.

Instead of worrying about closing back doors to immigration through post-study work visas, let's open our front door to valuable immigrants.

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