Government puts handbrake on immigration pledges

The Government appears to be backing down from its plan to stop international students from working while they study. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

After an election campaign stoked by immigration fears from both Labour and New Zealand First, the coalition partner’s stance on the topic appears to be softening. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

Cracks are appearing in the new Government’s plan to drastically cut net migration, with Labour pulling back from a pledge to get tough on international students wanting to work while studying.

Labour took its time in the lead-up to last year’s election to hammer National about record-high immigration before releasing its own policy that set a target to reduce numbers by 20,000 to 30,000.

This was mostly to come by targeting student visas, removing the work rights for those studying lower-level qualifications both while they were studying and after they graduated.

New Zealand First’s policy was even more dramatic, targeting a drop in migration numbers from about 73,000 to 10,000.

Details of how the party’s leader Winston Peters planned to do this were thin on the ground, but he also singled out student visas as an area that could be targeted.

After the coalition was formed Peters demurred to Labour’s more modest policy, while newly-minted Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern again reiterated the 20,000 to 30,000 target.

For the rest of the year the party continued to talk about its immigration changes and refused to apologise for setting a target.

But since arriving back after the holiday break, this rhetoric appears to have weakened

An Official Information Act request by RNZ revealed warnings from officials that changing student visa settings could damage the international education industry in the wake of falling Indian applications.

In response, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway told the public broadcaster he was “holding fire” on in-study work rights.

This reversal of Indian student numbers is not new, however, and has been occurring since 2015 following a tightening of English-language rules as agents pivot to more lenient countries.

Lees-Galloway denied the move was a backdown on Labour’s election promises when asked by Newsroom, stating the removal of in-study work rights would still be explored and was simply being shunted behind the removal of post-study rights in a “sequencing” move.

But he would not commit to following through on the pre-election policy and also stipulated that “we do not have a target for reducing overall net migration”.

“We’re going to do the policy development work around [in-study rights] and at the same time we’ll look at what the impacts of the previous government’s changes are and we’ll make a call on that further down the track.”

For his part, Peters refused to be drawn on what he thought of the back-pedaling and said the party had never been opposed to genuine international students.

“We campaigned on cutting back on immigration, that’s what’s forecast and that’s what’s going to happen.”

The opposition was not convinced, with National’s tertiary education spokesman Paul Goldsmith labelling the move backpedaling and calling out the decision to move away from the pre-election immigration target.

“They need to explain what they were doing during the campaign, were they genuine or was it just cynical electioneering, because what we’re seeing is not what they said they were going to do.

“They went out in the campaign saying they were going to reduce the number of student visas by 15-22,000, which is about a quarter, it’s colossal and a mad idea for what is a four-and-a-half billion dollar industry.”

Goldsmith admitted there had to be some serious changes after a “boom market” led to an influx of Indian students seeking an easy path to residence, but he defended National’s record of addressing migrant exploitation.

The international education industry itself welcomed Lees-Galloway’s comments, breathing a half-sigh of relief as it nervously waits to see what changes will be made.

Craig Musson, chairman of Independent Tertiary Education New Zealand (ITENZ) that represents private training establishments, said removing in-work rights would have had a negative effect on the market and affected New Zealand’s competitiveness.

ITENZ had already met with Education Minister Chris Hipkins and would soon meet with Lees-Galloway to emphasise that, he said.

“The media focuses on the bad cases but there’s thousands of students out there who are doing things right.”

Professor Paul Spoonley, of Massey University, said he suspected there had been some heavy lobbying of the Government from businesses that had led to a bit of a “reality check”.

“During the campaign both Labour and New Zealand First were about the regions, I think when they got in these regions and saw, say, if you’re a dairy farmer in Southland, half your workers are Filipino, do I really want to take away those workers?”

The Government needed to balance whether removing work rights and cutting into the bountiful international education pie was worth the risk.

Allocating more resources into the enforcement and regulation of migrant exploitation, which Immigration NZ is struggling to deal with, would potentially be a more useful move, he suggested.

“It’s like how we monitor international fishing but don’t take any enforceable action, what’s the point in monitoring if you’re not going to prosecute?”