One Question Quiz
Image: Getty/Archi Banal
Image: Getty/Archi Banal

SocietyJune 26, 2023

Australia is spending hundreds of millions to persuade New Zealand teachers to move

Image: Getty/Archi Banal
Image: Getty/Archi Banal

As the PPTA continues negotiating for a new pay deal for high school teachers and Victoria University of Wellington proposes cutting its secondary teaching qualification, some teachers are choosing to cross the ditch – and finding many compelling financial incentives. 

“I found it so difficult to get a job in New Zealand,” says Anna*, a primary teacher who now lives in Melbourne. After graduating in 2021 she spent a year relieving but couldn’t find a permanent job, just fixed term, part-time contracts. In Australia, though, it was easy. “I was offered a permanent job in the interview. They’re desperate for teachers.”

Anna isn’t the only one. In the last 12 months, The Spinoff understands that several hundred New Zealand teachers have moved to the Australian state of Victoria. They’re the human face of the Victorian government’s $779m AUD budget commitment to recruit an extra 1900 teachers; another $204m AUD was in this year’s budget to attract and retain teaching talent. That money has gone to an extensive advertising campaign, including targetted ads on social media and podcasts, and to financial incentives, including up to $10,000 of relocation support and $50,000 of potential bonuses.

For Anna, it was an obvious choice. “As a beginning teacher in New Zealand, the salary base is $56,000,” she says. “In Australia, I’m getting $75,000. That’s a really attractive pull to be here, and I just wanted to not be relieving.” She finds it difficult to imagine how teachers on starting salaries in New Zealand manage to get by long-term.

Drawn by higher wages and better conditions, teacher Anna now calls Melbourne home. (Photo: Getty Images)

Australia has an acute teaching shortage, especially of early childhood teachers and teachers in fast-growing areas – like Melbourne’s western suburbs, where Anna works. “The Victorian government is providing record investment to support schools and the early childhood sector with teacher recruitment,” said a Victorian department of education spokesperson in an email. Population growth as well as initiatives that increase the number of hours children can be in kindergarten for free has exacerbated the pre-existing shortage.

The enormous investment in recruitment – which The Spinoff understands is targeting teachers in the UK, South Africa, Canada and Ireland in addition to Aotearoa – is a way to fill the shortage, and Australia’s generally higher wages certainly help.

But teacher shortages go far beyond Australia’s borders. “It’s a global problem,” says NZEI Te Riu Roa president Mark Potter. In leading the union that represents early childhood and primary teachers, Potter has seen how teachers are under pressure around the world. “We run the risk of countries cannibalising each other’s teachers to make up the shortfall,” he says.

According to New Zealand’s Ministry of Education modelling, New Zealand’s teaching supply overall was adequate at the start of 2023. In English medium schools, there are enough primary teachers; in secondary schools, there are broadly enough teachers, but for some subjects (especially STEM) and in some regions of the country, there is still a shortage.

That said, long term modelling suggests there may be a shortage in 2025, and the retention rate has been dropping since 2021 as it returns to pre-pandemic levels. “It would be usual for some teachers to leave New Zealand to live or work overseas in any given year. Given our borders were closed during the pandemic, we can assume that there were people waiting to experience travel and work overseas,” says Jolanda Meijer, general manager of education workforce at the Ministry of Education. “This needs to be balanced with the increased number of people moving to New Zealand with great skills to teach.”

Part of the reason New Zealand doesn’t have a teaching shortage is that, like Australia, we rely on teachers from overseas. The Ministry of Education confirmed to The Spinoff that in the year to May 18 2023, 843 teachers from overseas have arrived in New Zealand, and 1,844 visas have been confirmed, including for teachers who haven’t arrived yet. Teaching is on the green list, making it easier to get a New Zealand visa, and schools and kura can apply for a finders fee to help meet their overseas recruiting costs.

The industrial action that secondary school teachers are currently engaged in (primary teachers reached a collective deal earlier this year) is indicative of the wider strain on teachers, Potter says. “We need to pay to stay relevant.” But while collective agreements are important, they can’t address all of the other demands on teacher’s time, he notes. “How many kids do you have in each classroom? How much money do you add for a child with disabilities?”

An empty classroom, desks and chairs, weird late afternoon light.
New Zealand has ‘one of the highest demands on teacher’s time around the world’. (Photo: Getty Images)

There’s also a question of time pressures. “We need teachers to have resources of time,” Potter says. “More time to prepare and plan makes a big difference to what they can achieve in a week – we have one of the highest demands on teacher’s time around the world.”

Anna has seen some of the differences in expectation in moving to Melbourne. In New Zealand, full-time first year teachers are given one whole day a week to plan and prepare. In her school in Melbourne, she gets five hours of preparation time a week, but feels like she has strong support systems. “I have a mentor teacher and a coach – I can ask questions whenever, wherever, about whatever, and I will get help.”

Given some of the pressures in the New Zealand teaching sector Potter isn’t surprised that other countries want to recruit New Zealand teachers. “We can see Victoria reaching in to get teachers. Trained teachers from English-speaking countries are the gold standard, and New Zealand teachers are heavily in demand.”

When she initially moved to Melbourne, Anna imagined staying for only a year or two. Now she’s not so sure. “I do see myself teaching in New Zealand eventually but the money draws me here more for now,” she says.

Staffing shortages “can’t be solved by pinching each other’s teachers”, Potter says. Addressing the structural issues of pay and workload should be a priority. “We’d like to have a long term plan in place that will develop the workforce we need… not be political footballs every three years.”

The current system may not be sustainable – especially if teachers trained in New Zealand keep thinking their best option is to move overseas, Potter says. “Teachers love what they do, they just don’t love what is happening around them right now.”

Keep going!