New Zealand has unveiled changes to international students’ work rights, in a bid to discourage “back-door” migration and curtail abusive bosses.
Government proposals would restrict the right to a year’s post-course employment – currently available to foreign graduates of many vocational programmes – to those who have studied for at least two years.
The government also plans to limit the work rights enjoyed by the partners of international postgraduate students, and the free schooling available to their dependants. Postgraduates must study in areas of designated skill shortage for family members to attract these privileges.
On the flipside, foreign undergraduates and postgraduates will automatically qualify for three years of post-study work. Under current arrangements, they must obtain employer sponsorship to work in New Zealand for more than 12 months.
In a statement, immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway said that the changes would help curb exploitation while ensuring that students were motivated by education rather than migration.
He said that students were being sold a “false dream” that post-study work offered a fast track to residency. “This has led to a decline in the general skill level of migrants granted permanent residency, and fraudulent and frankly unethical behaviour from some agents, employers and education providers.
“There have been too many cases where migrant workers have been subject to exploitation because they are dependent on a particular employer to stay in the country.”
Mr Lees-Galloway acknowledged that work experience was an important incentive for foreign students to choose New Zealand. “My proposals retain this while restricting an avenue of exploitation,” he said.
The government will consult on the proposals for four weeks, with submissions due by 29 June.
The plans are likely to please many educators who had feared harsher reforms after last year’s change of government. Prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party had campaigned on a promise to cut net immigration numbers by up to 30,000, partly by cutting visas for low-level courses, while coalition partner New Zealand First had agitated for bigger reductions.
Already reeling from a funding freeze in last month’s budget, universities were wary of any threat to education exports. But with the proposals largely benefiting their students, representative body Universities New Zealand expressed support.
Executive director Chris Whelan said that the current arrangements shepherded students into courses not valued by employers. “These changes simplify things for students, while encouraging them to get qualifications that will open doors to more meaningful jobs,” he said.
“That’s better for them [and] for employers who are constantly dealing with skill shortages. This is about more than export earnings and migration.”
However, the changes could mean more bad news for the country’s polytechnics, which are already losing domestic students. Some have posted huge deficits and face demands to repay teaching funds because they failed to meet student quotas. Private vocational colleges and language schools may also be disadvantaged.
The New Zealand government said that the scale of student exploitation was difficult to quantify. But it said that there had been a sixfold spike in the number of immigration investigations targeting international students, from 16 three years ago to 97 this financial year.
It said that it would seek feedback on whether to apply the changes to foreign students already in New Zealand.