Education sector welcomes visa restriction changes

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway says the Government has listened to concerns raised about its plans to tighten post-study work visas. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The education sector is claiming a victory after the Government relaxed its plans to tighten work visa access for international students in New Zealand.

While post-study work rights have still been cut back, one immigration law specialist is questioning whether the changes will do anything to clamp down on migrant exploitation.

In June, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway announced a number of proposals to change international students’ post-study work rights, saying too many were “being sold a false dream” about a fast track to residency.

The Government received over 2000 submissions during a consultation period, including many from education providers concerned about the impact on their sector.

The initial plans included limiting the length of post-study work visas for sub-degree courses to one year, from up to three years at present.

However, it has now decided to provide a two-year visa for students in particular fields, while also giving temporary access to a two-year visa for students outside Auckland who finish their study before the end of 2021.

A proposal requiring students undertaking non-degree Level 7 qualifications, such as graduate diplomas, to study for at least two years to gain work visa eligibility has been canned due to fears it could exacerbate a teacher shortage.

Lees-Galloway said the changes were about “lifting the value proposition” for the international education sector in New Zealand and moving away from a “bums on seats” approach.

MBIE has estimated between 1200 and 6000 fewer students could come each year, at a cost to the sector of between $12 million and $59m.

Lees-Galloway said the impact was likely to be at the lower end, and questioned some of the claims made by education providers about the original proposals.

"Some of the numbers that were being promoted, it was very difficult to figure out how they reached those numbers...they were predicting a loss in students that’s greater than the number of students that come to New Zealand right now.”

Remaining unchanged is the Government’s decision to remove all employer-assisted post-study work visas, which Lees-Galloway said would reduce the risk of migrant exploitation.

“There are some unscrupulous employers out there who will enhance the person’s job description, enhance their job title so it appears they qualify for the employer-assisted visa, and what they expect in return for that is they march the person down to the ATM on payday and they hand over their wages to the employer.”

Education sector cautiously optimistic

Education sector representatives who met Lees-Galloway before the announcement were cautiously optimistic about the new plans.

Universities New Zealand executive director Chris Whelan said he was happy universities’ concerns had been listened to, given the “huge benefits” of international education to New Zealand.

“We’re a small country on the end of the world and we need those people-to-people linkages that international students who come here then eventually return home actually bring.”

John Diggins, the deputy chief executive of early childhood teacher education provider Te Rito Maioha, said institutes training teachers had “lobbied very hard” for the removal of the proposed two-year requirement for graduate diploma courses at a time of education workforce shortages.

“To be honest we thought it was a bit of a no brainer, and when you look at the fact that’s early childhood, primary and secondary, I think it was listened to very clearly.”

Chris Gosling, chief executive of Whitireia Community Polytechnic and the Wellington Institute of Technology, said his institutes had estimated they could lose up to 45 percent of their international students if the initial plans went ahead, but the amendments had significantly improved their situation.

He rejected any suggestion polytechnics had pursued “bums on seats” at the expense of high-quality programmes, saying there was no relation between the level of a qualification and its quality.

“The challenge I believe is around low-quality providers and the way in which they approach international students, and domestic students for that matter, and the polytechnic sector, whether something is at level four to six or level seven and above, is not an issue of quality.”

'Incredibly underwhelmed' - immigration lawyer

Specialist immigration lawyer Alastair McClymont said he was “incredibly underwhelmed” by the Government’s final proposal, which appeared the result of trying to make everyone happy.

“They’ve done nothing to address root causes of exploitation in the migrant worker section...they’re going to reduce the export earnings from international students so that’s not going to help, and it’s appealing to xenophobes.”

McClymont believed scrapping the employer-assisted work visa would have no impact on exploitation levels, as students instead turned to the Essential Skills work visa which were “easier” to get despite the extra paperwork.

“There are more requirements for employers, and the more an employer has to do to support an applicant, the more potential there is for exploitation and fraud.”

The lower-level courses were being promoted overseas by “a bunch of unlicensed and unregulated education agents” who would still promise a pathway to residency regardless of the changes, he said.

“They’re just going to up the level of deceit and fraudulent advertising which is going on to lure students so they can maintain their commissions.”

McClymont said officials needed to stop blaming employers and students and change the fundamental nature of the system, which encouraged students to come here and obtain residency and work rights under the guise of seeking a qualification.