Local university enrolments drop as foreign students return

New Zealand’s universities are welcoming back thousands of international students only to find their domestic enrolments falling significantly.

Barely a month into the academic year, five of the country’s eight universities have reported a drop in full-time-equivalent (FTE) domestic students totalling about 4,500.

This has been balanced to a certain extent by their first increase in foreign enrolments since the start of the pandemic, thanks to the lifting of COVID-related border restrictions late last year.

The country’s largest university, the University Auckland, for example, has started the year with 1,351 fewer domestic FTEs (a 5% decrease) and 1,209 more international FTEs, leaving it very slightly short of its total for the same time last year.

Some universities are worse off than last year

Its neighbours, Auckland University of Technology and the University of Waikato, have also balanced or more than made up for declining domestic FTEs with increased international enrolments.

However, others are significantly worse off than at the same time last year.

Massey University reported a net decline of 4% or 680 FTEs and Victoria University of Wellington said it was 8% or 1,195 FTEs short compared with the same time last year.

Intriguingly, all five North Island institutions have reported fewer domestic FTEs while the two South Island institutions that shared their start-of-year figures, Lincoln and Canterbury universities, said their domestic FTEs had increased, as had their internationals.

The remaining South Island university, the University of Otago, did not provide its figures.

Other types of tertiary institutions have also reported falling enrolments. The country’s largest tertiary institution, the new national polytechnic, Te Pukenga, says its enrolments are down about 10%, and Mori provider Te Wananga o Aotearoa reported a 5% drop.

Executive director of Universities New Zealand Chris Whelan said a number of factors were behind universities’ falling domestic enrolments.

“Prior to COVID, at least 2,000 school leavers would go overseas to do their university studies [in] places like Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. We saw an increase in domestic enrolments of about that many students over the 2020 to 2022 period when borders were closed. Now they are open again, we believe a proportion of students have once again chosen to study abroad,” he said.

Delayed gap years

“We are also hearing that a proportion of continuing [second, third-year, etc] students have not re-enrolled this year. Feedback through some universities suggests that these are students who would normally have taken a gap year abroad after finishing school and before starting university. They are now taking advantage of the reopened borders to get their international experience.”

Whelan said feedback also suggested that rising living costs had prompted some students to reduce their study loads.

“These students might have been doing two papers a semester prior to this year but have only enrolled this year for one paper a semester,” he said.

Whelan said high employment was also prompting some would-be students to take jobs instead of starting university or progressing from an undergraduate qualification to postgraduate studies.

The Tertiary Education Union is urging universities not to cut programmes or staff numbers in reaction to the fall in domestic enrolments.

It said past experience showed enrolments would increase eventually and staff who had been sacked would be needed again.