International education: more than export earnings and migration

September 2017


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Executive director of Universities New Zealand CHRIS WHELAN says international students and researchers benefit New Zealand’s education system as well as its economy.

Chris Whelan 

There’s been a lot of debate recently about the pros and cons of New Zealand’s record rates of migration. For some people, migration is pushing up house prices, taking jobs, and changing our communities in undesirable ways. For others, it is bringing in skilled workers, creating jobs, and growing the economy.
For our education sector, migration is about sustainably nurturing what has become New Zealand’s fourth largest export market – international education, which brings in $4.28 billion a year and generates around 32,000 jobs for New Zealanders.

About $1.13 billion of that is generated by New Zealand’s eight universities.

Of these earnings, $750 million goes directly to the wider community through spending on things like travel, food, accommodation, and entertainment.

The remaining $380 million, made up of international student fees, stays with the university.  Every dollar of this is reinvested back into universities and is used to maintain the quality of teaching as well as develop and maintain facilities such as libraries, classrooms and research laboratories.

This $380 million improves the quality of education we can offer all our students and makes that education more affordable. If international students disappeared tomorrow, universities would  have to either significantly cut the quality and range of their programmes or increase fees by 50 per cent.

The revenue from international students is one reason why all New Zealand universities are ranked in the top 2.5 per cent of global universities and why New Zealanders can access a world-class education at any one of them.

New Zealand universities have a strong international reputation for the quality of their research and their researchers. In part, this reputation has been earned by our ability to attract and retain world-class researchers (and teachers) from abroad. For example, New Zealand now has more than 4,000 international students doing doctorates here (compared with around 5,000 domestic doctoral students). These are students doing original research that is required to make a significant contribution to their field of study.

I’m aware of research carried out by these students that has directly contributed to New Zealand through discoveries, including how to more economically remove impurities from wine, dealing with disease affecting kiwifruit, developing better mechanisms for detecting and catching wild rodents in New Zealand wildlife sanctuaries, and working with New Zealand companies to develop new commercial products in fields such as medicine and biotechnology.

A proportion of these gifted researchers remain in New Zealand and end up working for our companies or universities. A number of our best-known researchers, nationally and internationally, began here as students, applying their intellects to the needs of New Zealand and its people. They too are contributing in areas as diverse as leading the national kākapo recovery programme, developing cutting-edge medical equipment for sale around the world, and leading world-class earthquake resilience and recovery research.

However, I think we need to do more to tell the story about the important role these talented people play in our country. 

Universities New Zealand recently commissioned a public opinion poll of 1,000 parents of high-school age children and 750 small business leaders. 

  • Of the parents, 60 per cent thought international students made a strong economic contribution to New Zealand and 52 per cent thought they made a strong cultural contribution.
  • Of the business leaders, only 46 per cent thought international students made a strong economic contribution and 44 per cent that they made a social contribution.
  • A similar survey in the UK showed around 63 per cent of the population thought international students made an economic contribution and 60 per cent thought they made a positive social contribution.

So, we (and the UK) have some way to go in better communicating the benefits of international students to our economy and our society.

Let’s look at these wider benefits to New Zealand.

Currently around 26,000 bright, motivated young people have chosen to study at a New Zealand university. They will spend anything from a few months to six or seven years studying here. Most return home to and work for their own companies, governments and universities and most will remain champions and friends of New Zealand for life.

A large proportion of international trade, diplomacy and research is based on relationships. It is much easier to build those relationships when potential partners already know something about each other. 

I had the privilege of working for the government’s international aid programme for several years in the 2000s. One of my enduring memories of pretty much every visit I made to Asia and the Pacific was being met by government officials who had spent years in New Zealand through one of the scholarships established after World War II. Without exception, they were enthusiastic champions for New Zealand, willing to repay the hospitality and warmth they had enjoyed in this country by opening doors, making introductions and giving advice freely and helpfully.

Similarly, a good proportion of young New Zealand graduates will work for international companies or other organisations that require the capability to develop and foster relationships with people from other cultures. We also encourage them to mix and get to know the students who study alongside them from pretty much every country in the world. 

Looking at my own experience again, working with a range of people from around the world, I have found in every case that success has depended upon being able to understand the cultural norms and to be able to establish an appropriate rapport and relationship with the people I meet.

This is a skill that employers recognise and value. Last year a European study found that graduates with international experience are typically earning 7.7 per cent more than their peers five years after completing their studies.

International education is more than export earnings and migration. The two-way flow of people between New Zealand and the rest of the world is critical for both New Zealand and its people. I hope that these benefits are kept in mind as we debate the pros and cons of migration and internationalisation.

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