International education: Not just an experience but the possibility of a new life

Dr Sherrie Lee

I’ve been reading the draft policy statement on high-value international education in New Zealand, which aims to define what ‘high value’ means and minimise risks. Reading between the lines, the policy is responding to the growth of ‘low value’ and ‘high risk’ international education in the past decade or longer, most visible in the sub-degree courses with majority international student enrolments, marketed by off-shore agents as study pathways to residency. The message seems to be that international education must not be seen as a ticket to residency, or some sort of back-door entry into the land of milk and honey.

Low value, high risk edu-migration

The international students who come through this promised study-to-residency route may not have optimal attitudes toward study as they have their eye on the prize of migration. But if they’ve been sold a dream, including the ‘package deal’ of work rights as a student, minimum wage, and jobs in demand, then study is really a means to an end – legitimised by a burgeoning edu-migration business and associated success stories.

The ‘low value’ of this type of international education translates into misaligned academic goals between the institution and student, but is actually very high value in terms of international student fees earned and the investment the student puts towards the edu-migration course of action, with immediate gains for agents. The ‘high risk’ is played out in the over-reliance of institutions on fee-paying students as a business model, blurred lines between legitimate academic programmes and programmes designed to encourage unrealistic study-to-residence pathways, and – more alarmingly – the labour exploitation of international students.

A news report from 2016 illustrates the ‘low value’ and ‘high risk’ type of international education that I’m describing. The focus is on labour exploitation of an international student, but the backstory of why and how the student gets to New Zealand, and the survival issues he is constantly facing, demonstrate the tragic consequences of market forces and policy loopholes. Only recently was there a Temporary Migrant Worker Exploitation review, which was prompted in part by numerous cases of labour exploitation of international students. This review has resulted in new measures of greater compliance and enforcement, but also a practical way out for those caught in these situations (there’s a new visa to support migrants to leave exploitative situations quickly and remain lawfully in New Zealand).

The new draft policy statement

So it comes as no surprise that the draft policy on international education now refutes the suggestion that international students can take low-level courses as a way to gain residency, as that “weaken[s] the integrity of the immigration system“. Instead, the draft policy states that international students should be coming to New Zealand for “high-quality programmes in New Zealand’s areas of excellence”, have sufficient academic ability to succeed, enjoy their educational experience …. and then what? With the idea that guaranteed pathways to residency are somewhat reprehensible, we are left to assume that genuine international students who are focused on studying should be expected to leave New Zealand after they finish.

Putting aside the scenario of rogue agents selling the international education residency dream, this expectation seems unrealistic. As a former international student myself, and having done research in this area and moved in international education circles for several years, there is an implicit – if not explicit – hope among many students to at least entertain the possibility of making a new life in their destination country. In face, it is the possibility of working and living in the destination country that makes the country an attractive study destination. The 2019 IDP international student survey results bear out these sentiments, revealing Canada as the most desired destination. This is no surprise given Canada’s immigration policy has been closely linked to international education for many years, with the latest news reiterating and strengthening that stance – a welcome signal for many prospective students across the globe.

Fortunately, the piece of the new NZ draft policy that addresses high-value education does not drop the ball on study-to-residence pathways, but there are clearly favoured groups:

  • those in sub-degree programmes that are linked to domestic labour needs, and
  • post-graduate and professional degree students “who increase New Zealand’s long-term human capital and labour productivity.”

So reading between the lines once again, if I’m doing an arts or some non-professional degree, or a sub-degree in a subject that has not been classified as meeting domestic needs, I’m not valuable enough to be considered a potential worker or migrant. And I should go home once I’m done with my study.

Looking ahead: Challenges and opportunities

While specific criteria for ‘high-value’ international students may be justified, I wonder if we’re missing out on those ‘undefined’ categories of international students who may be pursuing various areas of interest and who may prove to be just as valuable human capital in the long run. If they are able to find meaningful work in New Zealand after graduation, what’s our attitude towards them? If our population stagnation stats and projections remain true (e.g. two-thirds of the country’s regions would be in a state of population stagnation or decline by 2040), then perhaps we should expand our criteria for study-to-residence pathways, and actually be upfront about these pathways.

More critically, however, international education policies, immigration policies, labour needs, and population trends are so intertwined that they need to work together to inform a robust international education vision and roadmap for the future. No doubt there has been ongoing research attempting to pull together these various strands. Some reports I’ve come across include:

I look forward to reading more about how we can match up international education with growth industries and look further ahead rather than just meeting immediate labour shortage needs.

A ‘high-value international education‘ will need to address a range of aspirations held by prospective students. While many international students may only be interested in an overseas education experience and no more, there are just as many, if not more, who are deeply invested in the possibility of study-to-residence pathways. In both cases, I think demonstrating strong links between a New Zealand education and meaningful work opportunities, whether in New Zealand or elsewhere, is going to be critical. And if we are serious about having international students contribute to our current and future labour needs and population growth, then we need to be fully cognisant of push-pull factors, manage expectations, and think global and long term.


This post was originally published on The Diasporic Academic. It is republished by permission.

The views expressed in this post are the author’s personal views and are not given within the context of her professional role.

Cover image: stokpic on Pixabay


Dr Sherrie Lee is originally from Singapore. She completed her PhD at the University of Waikato in 2019, using the concept of brokering to investigate the informal learning practices among first year international tertiary students in New Zealand. She is now a principal policy advisor at the NZ Tertiary Education Commission and blogs at The Diasporic Academic.

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