Universities becoming 'too reliant' on Chinese students

The Tertiary Education Union has warned that New Zealand’s universities are becoming too reliant on foreign enrolments, especially from China.

Education Ministry figures show international enrolments at the country’s eight universities reached a 10-year high last year, with nearly half drawn from China.

The institutions enrolled nearly 24,000 full-time equivalent foreign students in 2018, up from 17,140 in 2009.

The increase meant international students provided 18% of the overall university student body last year, up from 13% in 2009.

Chinese students were more important than ever, accounting for 11,280 full-time equivalents or 47% of universities’ international enrolments, up from 29% in 2009.

The figures include full-fee international students as well as those on aid schemes, and PhD students, who are subsidised by the government as if they are domestic students.

The president of the Tertiary Education Union, Michael Gilchrist, said universities were exposing themselves to significant financial risks by enrolling so many students from other countries.

Gilchrist said universities could suddenly find themselves with falling enrolments because of factors such as currency fluctuations, influenza epidemics and local economic conditions.

“We've seen in Australia the consequences of over-reliance on overseas students. I think they got up to 25%-plus at one stage and were hit hard. I mean that caused a real crisis when those numbers dropped,” he said.

‘Cap numbers to reduce risk’

Gilchrist said universities and the government should consider capping foreign enrolments in order to reduce the level of risk.

He said the union’s members were already worried that universities did not provide sufficient support for international students, and increasing enrolments would exacerbate the problem.

New Zealand’s smallest university, Lincoln University, had the highest concentration of foreign students last year at 35%.

Acting Vice-Chancellor Bruce McKenzie said the university was not over-exposed to the foreign student market, although it did need to ensure it was not invested too heavily in one country.

“There is a balance between income and risk. Lincoln University, in fact, in the mid-2000s had a very high percentage of students just from China and when that dried up it did put us in a financially difficult situation,” McKenzie said.

Diversifying enrolments

McKenzie added that universities had succeeded in diversifying international enrolments during the past 10 years, but those efforts had been masked by ever-increasing enrolments from China.

The University of Auckland drew 19% of its students, or 6,265 full-time equivalents, from overseas last year.

Vice-Chancellor Stuart McCutcheon acknowledged that foreign enrolments carried financial risks but said he did not agree with the Tertiary Education Union’s call for institutions to set an upper limit on such enrolments.

“I don't think there's a point at which we would set a limit. What we have to do of course is keep evaluating what the appropriate proportion of international students is,” he said.

The president of the New Zealand International Students’ Association, Lukas Kristen, said there was no need for a cap on international enrolments.

However, he said universities with large numbers of students from one country needed to ensure those students were not concentrated in particular courses or student hostels.