Before the pandemic, thousands of international students came to New Zealand from India each year. Now the borders are open again, students are returning, and India is a ‘growth market’. What does the transaction of international education mean for those who participate in it, both in New Zealand and India, and beyond?
In Farhaan Ansari’s* living room, there are two clocks. One displays the time in India, the country where he lives, working as a Hindi language teacher at a boarding school in a small town near the city of Dehradun. It’s 6pm. The other displays Eastern Standard Time, the time in the US and Canada where his sons attend university. It’s 8.30am; their day is just starting.
Hundreds of thousands of students leave India to study overseas each year. Three of them are his sons, aged between 20 and 23, who live in dormitories in a country where Ansari has never been.
Ansari’s children attend mid-tier universities, studying subjects – like accounting – that can lead to stable jobs. He hopes that at least one of them can stay long enough to get some kind of residency. “The pressure that we have for our sons to succeed – it can be very difficult,” he says.
Sitting in Ansari’s living room, seeing the empty spaces that his sons have left behind, I’m seeing the flip side of a system that I’ve participated in too. Raised and educated in India – albeit a New Zealand citizen – I left my small town at 18 to attend university in New Zealand. If you’d asked me at any point during my university years what time it was in India, I could have told you; part of me lived in Indian Standard Time even while I cooked dinner in my flat and went running up Wellington’s steep hills. My parents felt very far away; as I talk to Ansari, I realise that I must have felt as distant to them. I’m in India to report on the big picture of what education offers families like mine and the Ansaris – and what it’s cost, too.
In their quieter-than-before home, the reality of international study is vivid to the Ansaris. Sustaining their sons’ study informs much of their everyday life. They support their kids by talking to them most days, participating in their lives from far away; but they also have to pay the fees. To afford tuition costs, Ansari, his wife and his mother live in this small, tidy house above a courtyard where stray cats slink in the corners and kids play football. To afford their living costs, two of his sons work: shovelling snow, finding odd jobs where they can.
Ansari represents just one of the millions of Indian families whose personal lives – and personal finances – have been transformed by international education. An industry that is intimately intertwined with Aotearoa and worth billions of dollars to the economy before the pandemic. In the last five years, New Zealand has approved 41,784 student visas from Indian international students. As student numbers start to return to pre-pandemic levels, the education industry and the government expect – and need – numbers to rise dramatically.
But while attention to international education in Aotearoa tends to focus on its value to people here, like filling classrooms and facilitating cross-cultural connections, how does the economic system shape the family and country these students leave behind?
“The visuals of New Zealand – it’s like heaven on earth over there. I don’t know why anyone would want to leave,” says Manhas George, who is about to move to Auckland from the south Indian state of Kerala to study shipping logistics when I speak to him. He’s all enthusiasm, consumed by planning: it’s three months away but he has already decided to stay with a cousin for a week when he first arrives in New Zealand while he finds a flat.
George knows exactly why he’s leaving India to study. “No one wants to stay in India. You get paid this measly amount – you put in the hours to work and study and end up in a call centre earning 15 or 18 thousand [rupees per month] which isn’t even enough to cover your rent.” He thinks Aotearoa will offer something better: work-life balance, higher pay, clean streets, access to the outdoors.
The magnetism of studying abroad is vivid in the urban space of Indian cities. While in India, I fill my camera roll with blurry images of “Study in Australia and New Zealand” and “Study abroad – IELTS tutoring” signs spotted out the doors of auto rickshaws and buses. On the signs, well-dressed young people clutch books and look upwards, a vision of aspiration. Advertisements for private schools proclaim the availability of IGSCE exams – the internationally accepted British standard – or International Baccalaureate programmes.
It’s visible in digital space, too. Standing on a street adjoining Connaught Place, a central district of New Delhi, I search Google Maps for “studying abroad”. Red pins pop up on the screen like porcupine quills, all gleaming with aspirational names: “Golden Compass Education” and “Bright Future Abroad Studies”.
The reality is more mundane. I speak to education consultant Varun Iyer, of Gotouniversity.com, in a small beige room in the upper story of a brutalist concrete office building, blinds closed against the noise of traffic 12 storeys below. The office has a small kitchen, and several staff making calls and sending emails, while hand-made posters congratulate students on gaining entrance to international universities in colourful felt pen; this room, usually, is for talking to potential clients, but today I’m the only visitor.
There are three reasons students move overseas, Iyer says: for a better quality of life, increasing their earning potential in India or elsewhere, and for the option of staying after studying with post-study work visas and the possibility of gaining residency. But there’s one factor that isn’t a consideration. “You might wonder why I didn’t say that the quality of education is a reason to move, but the quality of education in India is also good,” he says. “It’s just that we have a 150 crore [1.5 billion] population, so the competition is high. Most students we work with don’t care if it’s good quality or not, they just want to go abroad.”
The urge to move from India to New Zealand is one I recognise. Almost all of my primary and high school education was in India, albeit at an English-medium international school. While at school, I visited one of the University of Delhi campuses and liked the big old buildings, but the majority of my classmates were moving overseas. I skimmed a listing for an Indian dorm where women had a 9pm curfew, but I never took the idea of studying in India seriously. I am a New Zealand citizen by birth; I knew that university here, then staying here, was an option, one my family could easily afford.
“Leaving India is going to be so bizarre,” I wrote to my father in an email, just before I left. “I’m feeling so excited and anxious.”
Getting to New Zealand to study is the straightforward part. It’s staying here that’s difficult for those with foreign passports. According to Education New Zealand, 60% of international students leave New Zealand immediately after completing their studies – but it’s difficult to know how many would have stayed if they’d met visa requirements.
Remaining after study happens via post-study work visas, which can be the beginning of a path to residency. Rules around the duration and criteria to get these visas were changed last year; students who get bachelors degrees or higher can work for any employer, in any job, while those who do certifications beneath this level have to work in an area related to their study and where New Zealand has a skills shortage – like dairy farming, civil engineering, construction or teaching.
After a post-study work visa runs out, many visa options are indexed to the median wage – currently $29.66. If I wasn’t a New Zealand citizen, it would have been nearly impossible to get an entry-level journalism job with these requirements.
Despite the parameters, Manhas George believes moving to New Zealand is the beginning of his big, bright future. “I’ve put everything into academics, studied day in and day out – I want my effort to bear fruit and I feel that New Zealand is the place that will give me that chance.”
The economic proposition
“The government of New Zealand treats [international education] like a business deal, it’s big bloody money for us,” says Arun Jacob, a local recruiter who works with Indian students through his company AGV Global. He’s right: before the pandemic, international education was estimated to contribute $5.1b to the New Zealand economy, in direct fees and indirect contributions.
For individual institutions, international students are a significant portion of their revenue; at the university level, international students can pay nearly four times as much as domestic students, whose courses are subsidised. The cost difference between domestic and international student fees is particularly high here. To take two examples, both being courses that teach skills on the “green list”, a two-year diploma of engineering at Otago Polytech costs $18,112 for domestic students and $48,164 for international students. And that’s without living costs – very few international students have the option to live cheaply with relatives.
Fees for a one-year diploma of teaching at AUT, in addition to requiring a recognised qualification from New Zealand or a university overseas, cost $8,489 for a domestic student and $32,674 for an international student, who can’t take out interest-free loans or receive student benefits from Studylink.
In 2020 and 2021, tertiary institutes received $860m less in fees from international students than in 2019. There’s a direct impact on students; AUT justified proposed academic job cuts last year as being due to a lack of international students, although the plan was later abandoned.
But education is a transaction for students who come to New Zealand, too. The median income in India is ₹23,000 INR ($450 NZD) per month per household (although to afford to study overseas, families have to be earning more than this). Well-paying jobs can be fiercely competitive. Meanwhile, New Zealand has a minimum wage of $22.70 per hour, meaning it’s possible to earn that median monthly income in 20 hours before tax – incidentally, the exact number of hours international students are allowed to work per week while studying. In paying for education overseas, students are buying the possibility of making more money.
Tthe educational advantages of belonging to New Zealand changed where Cherish Roby was born. Roby, who grew up in South India, is in a unique situation; his parents were temporary workers in New Zealand when he was born, granting him citizenship before default birthright citizenship ceased in 2004 – none of the rest of his family have New Zealand citizenships or residence visas. “My father did odd jobs, they stayed so I could be born here even though they didn’t have enough money, then they came back [to India],” he tells me over WhatsApp.
While a New Zealand citizen, Roby hadn’t been to New Zealand since he was two months old, until he moved to study computer science in Auckland this year. Having citizenship makes university acceptance easier, not least because of much cheaper domestic fees. “I wanted to go to IIT [the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology] but the competition is too high here, so I found out about UoA, and that you could get a student loan interest free.”
Getting part time work while studying is key for many students to make their stay in Aotearoa financially viable. Roby is working at a KFC so he can send money back to his parents if he has any leftover after living expenses – because he’s a New Zealand citizen, he has no restrictions on how much he can work.
International students’ visa conditions let them work lower-wage jobs while studying in New Zealand. “You need courier delivery boys, you need liquor store workers,” says Jacob, the recruiter. “It’s a beautiful way of bringing in workers who are paying for their chance to be in NZ; they’re in good health because they’re screened for it, they’re of good character because they’re screened for that. Many opt for low work courses like diplomas at small colleges around the country, and I’m absolutely certain the government is aware of it.”
But the work these students do isn’t intended as a way to make significant money, says Celia Coombes, international education manager at Immigration New Zealand. “That money needs to be incidental – we want them to concentrate on studying.” Nevertheless, all the students I spoke to for this story noted part-time work while studying was a key factor in choosing to come here.
For those who return to India after studying overseas, an international degree is an asset. Iyer, the recruiter in Delhi, reels off a series of anecdotes about friends and clients who have studied overseas, then returned to Delhi to work in high paying consulting jobs at Big Four companies or prestigious technology firms. The overseas qualification is often preferred by recruiters.
In fact, Iyer has done this himself – flipping through some resumes of applications for education consulting roles recently, he found someone who had studied at the Manukau Institute of Technology in Auckland. “When I was looking at CVs to shortlist, I preferred his, since I knew he had studied in New Zealand, he had that international experience.”
The other side of the many, many coins
“Indian education is highly subsidised,” says economist Binod Khadria, who has studied international migration patterns of educated workers from India as a professor at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. More than half of India’s 1.4 billion people are under the age of 30 – that’s a lot of free state schools and highly subsidised universities, as well as thousands of private schools and colleges. “Lots of subsidies go into their education when they’re young, and it’s a loss when they go overseas.” Just like when people educated in New Zealand’s subsidised schools and universities take their skills and expertise to Australia, other countries benefit from India’s education.
Khadria sees how his country has been shaped by many of the most talented people moving overseas. “A strong society is built on the skills of its population, it’s not just about money,” he says. “Of course there is compensation for the brain drain from remittances, but remittances aren’t the same as having highly educated people.” India has high rates of unemployment, especially among young people. Khadria connects the low productivity to the millions of educated and upwardly mobile Indians who move overseas and don’t come back.
Historically, India’s history as a part of the British empire has driven migration – English is a national language, and it’s easier for people who speak English to migrate. The New Zealand government makes attractive policies, like domestic fees for international PhD students and the ability to work on a student visa. If the Indian government is concerned about the loss of money and talent via international education, they could pull policy levers too, Khadria says – in fact, there’s already a domestic equivalent. After being educated in some state-funded medical schools, doctors in India are required to work in resource-limited hospitals, usually in rural areas. “You could apply that to going abroad,” muses Khadria. But it certainly wouldn’t be a popular policy with India’s aspiring middle class.
“I feel like a lot of money goes out of the country in the form of dollars,” says Ansari. “A lot of talented people go away from here.” It’s not just his children leaving to study: it’s his niece, it’s the students he teaches. Instead of those resources and talent circulating in the Indian economy, fees and living costs benefit people on the other side of the world.
Where do those dollars come from? “It’s a lot more than we can afford,” says Ansari. He’s maxed out credit cards and taken out bank loans. “I’m borrowing money from my wife’s brother, from my brother in the States – and my wife had to give up her jewellery last summer when my son’s flight got cancelled and we had to rebook his flights.”
Private education loans in India are also common both for use toward highly privatised domestic university fees and international study; most banks advertise packages on their websites. India’s state bank, for instance, offers loans for international education up to ₹1.5 crore ($292,000), with payment plans that can last 15 years, although there are government subsidy schemes. Private banks, sometimes unscrupulous, don’t always do rigorous checks of family finances, which can create cycles of debt. It’s difficult to overemphasise how massive this amount of money is in a country where the average annual GDP per capita in 2022 was $3,800.
New Zealand tertiary institutions know that international students are sometimes paying fees with personal loans, says Coombes from Immigration. It does make education more accessible, and the hope is, of course, that the degree will be a pathway to high income work. “We’re not always [seeing] personal wealth – a lot of people apply from all walks of life.”
No matter how it’s funded, moving in and of itself is expensive, and the cost of living in New Zealand is dramatically higher than India. George, the shipping and logistics student, lists what he’s spent so far before even leaving India: he’s had to sit the IELTS English exam multiple times, pay for visa consultancy, flights, tuition, plus show evidence that he has $20,000 to have his student visa approved. He’s been keeping track of it all. “The flight is roughly one lakh [₹100,000 INR or $2,000 NZD], but I’ll try to go cheaper, it’s too heavy on my pocket. College fees are about 15 lakh, and I’ve kept 33, 34 lakh in my account.”
With financial necessity to find work, and without the support networks available to New Zealand residents, international students are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. After a spate of scandals between 2012 and 2018, including kiwifruit orchards using international students to work overtime and below minimum wage, rule changes made it harder for employers to employ international students.
“We remain committed to not allowing exploitation in New Zealand,” says Coombes. “International students need to know that they have the same rights as New Zealanders.”
While the sector has improved, Jacob says there are “so many dodgy players.” Something that particularly troubles him is when recruitment companies transfer money into a prospective student’s account so their visa will be approved, then take it away, or charge very high interest. (Coombes says that visa applicants are asked for a transaction history in their account to cut down on this practice.)
“Consultants based in small towns and cities in India sell wild dreams about how New Zealand is the land of milk and honey, how you’ll have a red carpet thrown at you… and then they land and realise they’re in the wrong college, doing the wrong course.” Lower income students who are less fluent in English are particularly susceptible, Jacob says.
Some of the many who pursue education overseas return to India and find jobs. While the return of students might be good for them and their families, it doesn’t necessarily benefit everyone. “If they come back as employees of multinational companies, whose interests are they really serving?” Khadria asks.
“That’s the contradiction you find,” he continues. “If you ask me if I’d like to send my children abroad, I’d say yes, but if you ask me if it’s good for society I’d have to say it’s a question mark.”
Not everything can be quantified
The role that international education plays in society isn’t only an economic one. “There’s a very positive impact on our community when international students come to [New Zealand], understand our culture, and kiwi students understand other cultures as well,” says Grant McPherson, chief executive of Education New Zealand. It’s one of the chief benefits of international education for everyone. Students get life experience and quality learning that sets them up for well-paid work in the future; New Zealand society gets access to the knowledge and cultural experience those students bring with them.
McPherson and his colleagues in the education sector talk about community and cultural values, and they mean it. It’s good for people who live in New Zealand to learn from and make friends with people from different cultures and backgrounds. But corporate language creeps in too: phrases like “high value” and “growth markets” are used to describe students, so they are at once people and products. Maybe this is inevitable: everyone involved in the international education industry knows that they’re participating in an economic transaction, and everyone hopes they’re gaining an advantage within it.
Part of that cultural exchange is the way that values around who should be educated in India are evident in New Zealand too. Cultural expectations for women to stay with their families, and family willingness to invest more money into the education of sons is common in India. And that affects the demographic of Indian students here in Aotearoa: data released to The Spinoff from Immigration New Zealand shows that more than twice as many men than women from India apply for visas to study in New Zealand.
Talking to students preparing to move to Aotearoa reminds me of how it felt to be 18, living in India, browsing university websites and reading about how StudyLink worked, the trees outside my window neon green in the humid monsoon. While I’d lived in Aotearoa for stints as a child, I still found the idea of living in this temperate country foreign, even if the reasons I had for moving – affordable education, outdoor space, freedom and safety as a woman – were solid.
Of course, everything turned out alright: I attended university, lived in horrible flats and nice ones, learned a lot, walked up mountains and felt like my education was excellent and worthwhile – and then I got a job. In other words, I was living out McPherson’s articulation of the moving-to-New Zealand dream, although without any of the visa stressors that international students face.
But, while I developed a strong sense of belonging in Aotearoa, I lost something too. Much of my Hindi vocabulary evaporated from lack of use. My New Zealand accent got stronger; to most people, it can be hard to tell that I spent so much of my life living elsewhere. I fell out of touch with friends living in India, or who moved to countries other than New Zealand.
Students choosing to migrate here are aware of some of what they’re relinquishing, too. “I’m going to miss speaking in Hindi,” says George, the shipping logistics student. “It’s the funniest and most beautiful language anyone could learn.” He’s going to miss the food, too, steaming samosas on the side of the road after a late night out with his friends, fresh mangoes.
“I have to leave a part of me behind and go ahead – I guess that’s what life is, the cost of taking this step for myself,” George says. “I’m really happy I’m leaving, but I’m so sad to leave my family behind. It’s bittersweet.”
The impact on families of children studying abroad is immense. While there is local respect gained from it (Ansari was recently asked for a photo at a wedding after other guests learned his children were studying overseas) there are many shared moments lost. “I feel bad for our children, they’re so far away from their family,” says Ansari. “They miss occasions. We tell them, your cousin is getting married, it’s Eid, it’s Ramadan – all of that.” It can be deeply upsetting for him and his wife to not be able to take care of their kids when they’re sick, or comfort them when they’re sad: they can talk on the phone, they can offer what money they can afford, but they can’t make chicken biryani or give them a hug.
Ansari understands why students leave but he ponders what the framing of international education – the idea that everything from your earning potential to your quality of life will be better somewhere else – does to his sons, his students, his friends, and the thousands of international students he’ll never meet. Do they lose the opportunity to understand where they come from? “I have a list in my head, of 35 people you should know if you’re an Indian. You have to make your roots stronger. If you don’t know who Birsa Munda is, if you don’t know about the Chipko movement, you shouldn’t go from here,” says Ansari, sipping his chai. I feel ashamed; I don’t know anything about the tribal activists he mentions. I look it up after we part ways.
The educational future
The education industry in Aotearoa is in a moment of flux. During Covid border closures, international student numbers plummeted from 120,000 in 2019 to a mere 12,791 just before the border reopened in August 2022. Increasingly popular options for studying online and the formation of Te Pūkenga may also have an impact on who chooses to come here, although the data from visa applications doesn’t always show why students have applied.
Most international students in New Zealand come from China and India, and applications are still coming from these countries, but there is less interest in private colleges and English language schools, who offer fewer courses that align with the visa green list. The $3.7bn that international education directly contributed to the NZ GDP in 2019 was only $800m last year.
“Before the pandemic, it was a feeding frenzy,” says Jacob. “The pandemic was terrible for companies like me but good for New Zealand in the long run … we can shift to having quality education, not playing the numbers game.”
Of course, the story of how wealthy countries benefit from the demand for their education systems is very much a universal one, and Aotearoa only plays a small part in it; the story here is echoed in Germany, in the US, in Canada, in Ireland. Indian students are the main source of international students in most English-speaking countries, and, combined, applications have more than doubled since 2019.
But most students want to come to New Zealand to be – and maybe stay – in New Zealand, not just to get a degree. “It’s hard to find opportunities,” says George. “But New Zealand is the place I want to be.”
Maybe it doesn’t matter whether students leave because they’re doing a course they can’t do in India or because they want to live somewhere with higher wages; whether their families have paid for it with personal loans or personal wealth; if they’re going to return to India only for visits or forever. They’re still leaving.
With my phone full of interviews with people in the education sector, pictures of study abroad advertisements and exquisite ancient buildings, I return to the job and life that studying in New Zealand led me to. Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, which cultural critic Pranay Somayajula has noted is a clichéd motif in Indian diaspora writing, feels busy. I’m by myself, but I’m not alone: I’m following in the footsteps of my family members, and millions of others, who have left India for a different life. In this moment, I see the airport itself as a place transformed by international education – all the people who leave and return, filling flights, carrying tampons and bars of Whittakers for the people they love who still live here.
It’s 9pm. A woman sits next to me, trying to jam her suitcase closed. I offer to help her; she pulls out a piece of paper then I compress the suitcase, full of cold-weather gear, while she zips it up. “Where are you going?” I ask. “Waterloo, Canada,” she says, showing me the paper: an offer of admission to a business school in Ontario. She’ll have to show it as proof of her legitimate visa when she goes through border control. “I’ve never been to Canada before,” she says. I wish her luck. Then we walk to our separate check-in desks, ready to board our flights to the other side of the world.
* First name changed for privacy.