New Zealand's multi-billion dollar export education sector faces a repeat of a 2003 collapse in its key Chinese market after the forced closure last month of the privately run New Zealand National College (NZNC) left many students feeling betrayed by authorities and stuck without qualifications or full refunds.
Dozens of Chinese students say they are now stranded in Auckland without any ability to continue their studies or recover tens of thousands of dollars in fees that the College failed to put into a trust. They accuse the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) of negligently approving the College to begin with and then failing to monitor the College's compliance with rules about putting their fees into a trust.
The students say they feel ripped off by a College that New Zealand authorities had encouraged them to study at, and said they would warn their compatriots in China and the Chinese Government that New Zealand's export education industry cannot be trusted.
The incident risks a repeat of a slump in international student numbers from China after the collapses of the Modern Age and Carich English language schools in 2003 stranded more than 1,000 students in Auckland. That led to warnings from the Chinese Government against studying in New Zealand. Chinese student numbers imploded from over 14,000 in 2003 to just 2,500 in 2007.
A group of over 40 students paid $14,000 each early last year to study for a level 7 business diploma at NZNC. They said they were asked to pay in cash and bank cheques. They studied through 2017 and finished their classes in December, including having a farewell Christmas Party with NZNC staff who assured them they would be notified of their qualifications in January.
Instead, NZQA announced on January 8 the College's registration had been cancelled because it had "serious concerns in relation to educational performance and compliance with NZQA rules."
NZQA then told the students they would not receive their qualifications and they would be repaid money held in trust. They were also told that their English language skills, which had been certified by NZNC itself, were also too poor for them to complete their studies and achieve their qualification at another training establishment. Many are now stranded without a student visa.
They also discovered that just $6,000 of their $14,000 had been deposited in the Public Trust, meaning the owners of NZNC had pocketed the money and it could not be recovered. They also discovered that Indians students in the same class had been charged just $6,000.
"We came to this country to study because we knew that NZNC was permitted by the New Zealand Government to teach a NZQA approved qualification, but after we passed the course and just before our graduation day NZQA have told us that the qualification is worthless and that the owner has stolen our fees by not paying them into the Public Trust," said Frank, one of the students on the level seven business course.
'Please help us'
Newsroom spoke to two of the students from China in the abandoned classrooms on level three and four of 238 Queen Street about their experiences. Desks, chairs, books and computers were left strewn about the classrooms, along with old textbooks for Windows 2000 and a cash-counting machine.
They said they felt betrayed by the New Zealand authorities that had allowed NZNC to take their money and then stood by as they were stranded. Some face deportation within weeks if they cannot renew their student visas. Some have no money and others are too embarrassed about losing their money to tell their parents of their plight.
The two students, Cora and Genie, became emotional as they described discovering they would not receive their qualifications and would not be able to retrieve their fees. They cried when talking how they had not be able to tell their parents that they had graduated for the Chinese New Year.
The students had already taken their case to the Chinese Embassy and would ensure their friends and fellow students knew about their experiences in New Zealand. The students had set up a discussion group on WeChat and would campaign on social media to tell their friends about their experiences in New Zealand.
NZNC was operated by Universal Education Ltd, which is listed in the companies office as owned by Di Wu, who is also its director. A discarded staff list listed an Evan Wu as the Managing Director of NZNC. He did not respond to requests from Newsroom for comment.
Missing money being investigated
Dr Grant Klinkum, NZQA’s deputy chief executive of quality assurance, said firm action was taken against the college to protect the integrity of New Zealand qualifications.
Student fee protection rules were designed for exactly this type of situation and ensured students were refunded if courses or training establishments were closed, he said.
While some students had said they paid a higher fee than the amount placed in the student trust account by the college, it was unclear why they had submitted receipts for a lower amount of money and signed a declaration to that effect, he said.
NZQA would refund the students for the amount the students submitted they had paid in the declaration to Immigration New Zealand when they applied for their visas.
Klinkum said the allegations of extra fees being paid and not being put into a trust were being investigated and he could not make further comment.
Alastair McClymont, an immigration lawyer working on behalf of the students, said the College had submitted their visa applications on their behalf and they had been asked to sign various documents in breaks between classes.
"The school administrators told the students that they were not permitted to take the documents home for reading, take copies or even take photos of the forms," McClymont said.
"The students now suspect that some of the documents that they were asked to sign were invoices for lower fees as they were either not given receipts or given receipts for the $14,000 that they actually paid," he said.
"Had NZQA discovered failings in the school previously then these students would never have fallen into this problem in the first place. The students ask how is it possible that the school was acceptable at one point of time, then suddenly unacceptable some years later. How did the school ever get approved in the first place?"
'Refund them in full so they can study'
McClymont said the students want their full amounts refunded from the Export Education Levy.
"The students are asking whether NZQA will support them to work temporarily in New Zealand while they continue to pursue the school for a full refund of the fees paid and shop around for alternate education providers," he said.
"If Immigration New Zealand is unable to grant them visas to continue working in their part time jobs then how can they survive in New Zealand while shopping for another provider and pursuing the school for their fee refund? Without income, they have to return home to China."
Education New Zealand’s deputy chief executive John Goulter said said that in order to protect the industry’s reputation it was important that NZQA took action when providers did not meet the required standards. Education New Zealand is the state-backed promoter of the export education sector, which was estimated to have created $4.5 billion of value for the New Zealand economy last year.
ENZ supported NZQA in taking “robust quality assurance action” and the students affected would be refunded, he said.
Hipkins concerned about fallout
Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government was concerned about the industry's reputation when these situations occurred.
“That is why we are working hard to address low quality operators. The sector grew too big, too fast under the previous National Government, which took its eye off the ball and let the overall industry down," Hipkins said.
“It is important to state, however, that the vast majority of operators do provide quality education," he said.
“The students have all received a full refund and are able to go to an alternative provider subject to entry requirements, which includes English language proficiency. If they don’t pass these language requirements that is an indictment on New Zealand National College for allowing the students to study in the first place and is a major reason why NZQA deregistered them."
The students deny receiving full refunds.