PAUL GOLDSMITH: International education shouldn't be a political scapegoat


OPINION: Hon Paul Goldsmith, Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment

For as long as I can remember we have been talking about the importance of diversifying the New Zealand economy, so that we are less reliant on fluctuations in commodity prices and the weather.

And we’ve made great progress.  In the past few years we’ve experienced a huge drop in dairy prices (thankfully now reversing), and yet throughout that period the New Zealand economy continued to grow and exports actually increased.

Such a remarkable result, which has sustained the jobs boom we have enjoyed, reflects the hard work of countless men and women in many industries: wine, kiwifruit, IT, tourism, and yes, export education.

Export education – primarily people coming from overseas to study in New Zealand - is now our fourth largest export industry, worth more than $4.5 billion to our economy every year and sustaining more than 30,000 jobs.

That’s something to celebrate – I’d have thought.

Every industry has its challenges, and export education is no different.  There have been some poor performing providers who have found ways around the rules or broken them.

My response as Minister has been to give a clear direction to the regulators, particularly NZQA, which is responsible for quality assurance in the sector, to be active and robust in driving out poor behaviour in the industry.  

And they have been.  In the past year around 20 providers have either been closed down or have been severely limited in what they can do. That’s 20 providers out of more than 470.

The Labour Party’s proposed response, is to bring out the scythe and slice off a substantial piece of a huge industry.

Labour’s policy is to stop issuing student visas for courses below a bachelor’s degree that are not independently assessed by the TEC and NZQA to be of ‘high quality’.

I searched the policy for a definition of ‘high quality’ and couldn’t find it.

But they have produced some numbers – they are targeting a reduction of 15,000 to 22,000 international students.

Last year just over 72,500 international student visas for tertiary institutions were granted in New Zealand.  A few more may have come on tourist visas.

So what they’re talking about is taking out as much as a quarter of the sector.

This could translate to as much as a billion dollars a year and thousands of jobs lost.

Those thousands of jobs are not just statistics.  They’re real people; Kiwis who are teachers, café workers and countless others who are giving their best to teach, inspire, entertain and support international students.  Their jobs are threatened by a misguided policy.

It could translate to real financial stress for our Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics (ITPs), as well as many Private Training Establishments (PTEs).

That’s reckless.

It reflects a dangerous attitude that assumes we can lop off big parts of our successful economy without real impacts on our living standards.

This National government backs the international education sector.  We see it as an important part of our knowledge-based economy that will continue to provide good quality jobs for New Zealanders.  We want it to be sustainable and that’s why we are focused on driving out poor behaviour.

The international education sector will succeed to the extent that it provides a great quality product to students.  A Kiwi education will set them up well for life.  And when most of them return home, as they do, they will take a piece of New Zealand with them, creating powerful and lifelong connections between us and the world.