The potential to make millions off international students has led to an industry marred by fraud, lies and bad policy.
The international student market is huge money-maker for our economy. It’s already New Zealand’s fifth largest export category worth close to $3 billion and it's only getting more lucrative. Last year, the money from tuition fees alone topped $1 billion for the first time.
While most of the international students in New Zealand have traditionally been from China, over the last few years, Indian students have rapidly grown in number. There are now more Indian students in the non-university tertiary sector than any other group.
There were more than 29,000 Indian students enrolled to study here in 2015; that’s a 150 percent increase since 2010.
More students mean more money pumped into our economy andTertiary Education Minister, Steven Joyce, says benefits of international education extend well beyond their economic contribution.“Young New Zealanders live and learn alongside people from other countries, increasing their understanding of other cultures and boosting our links with the world. These links are vital for us to prosper in an increasingly Asia-Pacific world,” he says.
The bad news is, it’s not exactly going to plan. Over the last few years, more and more accounts of cheating, immigration fraud, shoddy agents, exploitation of workers and low-quality education providers have emerged. However, much of it happens behind the scenes or even before the students land on New Zealand soil.
Earlier this year, The Wireless travelled to India to find out what’s behind the rapid growth. Here’s what we know:
#1: A very bad decision
The reality is, New Zealand isn’t a first choice study destination for most Indian Students. Countries like the US, UK, Canada and Australia are usually on the top of their wish list. But when the New Zealand Qualification Authority (NZQA) decided to change the rules, the country experienced an unprecedented surge in Indian students wanting to study here - what started as a wave quickly became a tsunami.
It began in 2013 when NZQA, with the approval of Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce, drastically altered the English language requirements for Indian students.In a nutshell, some Private Training Establishments (PTEs) could enrol students into their programmes without having to prove they could speak English through the standard channels - they could use their own tests and criteria instead.
PTEs are privately owned tertiary education providers. They are registered by NZQA and must be signatories of a special code to enrol international students.
While in India, The Wireless spoke to Navneet Singh, co-founder of GoGlobal education consultancy, in the North of the country.
Navneet sends hundreds of students to New Zealand every year and says while the intent of the policy change wasn’t bad, the results had hugely negative impacts for New Zealand.
“Before anybody could understand what happened, it went haywire.
“The primary responsibility [for English testing] was given to the PTEs…and who made the biggest money? The PTEs.”
The rule change led to a sharp increase in fraudulent activity, both by those in India and PTEs in New Zealand looking to make cash off easy-to-exploit entry requirements.
The number of international students from India surged from about 12,000 to more than 20,000 between 2013 and 2014.
Then the surge became a flood. At the end of October last year, Immigration NZ already received 11 percent more student visa applications than in the whole of 2014, most of which were being declined.
In a high priority report to the Steven Joyce released to under the Official Information Act, NZQA stated that some education agents in India were actively promoting New Zealand as a destination for its ease of entry. It also noted that, in some cases, these agents in India where given the authority to enrol students on the PTEs behalf.
“These [education] providers appear to have no visibility or control over how many offers of place are issues, or to whom. Some of this “outsourcing” is of poor quality.”
Licensed Immigration Adviser Munish Sekhri says he saw, first-hand, what was going on.
“I personally was approached by many PTEs who said ‘hey look, we’ll give you the login details for our English testing portal so you or your staff can sit [the test] on behalf of the students and we’ll offer an admission letter instantly.”
Indian students also suffered. Many with low language skills become susceptible to exploitation in the New Zealand workforce, with some only managing to get jobs paying as little as $4 an hour.
Noticing the damage, NZQA tried to back-track.
They re-introduced rules in late 2015 which meant education providers couldn't use their own English assessments for students coming from India but many say the damage was already done.
#2: Rogue Agents
The majority of students coming from India are from the North – a region most Kiwis will recognise through their taste buds with dishes like tandoori chicken, korma and naan.
Walking along the streets of Chandigarh in North India, the number of signs and banners advertising education abroad is staggering. They line the shop fronts with promises of “easy visas”, “instant approval”, and “residency”, vying for the attention of potential students.
Most young Indians organise their trips through education agents. These agents give advice on where to study, help organise visa applications, and facilitate English testing. However, there are few rules and regulations that govern who can be an agent, what they can say, or how much they can get paid.
Late last year, a Facebook group was set up to support students in New Zealand – Agents Trapped International Students – which has 330 members. One member wrote: “I was told that business program has lot of demand and great jobs are available in Auckland. I have done graduation in business hence I thought it will be great decision to go ahead. But when I landed here I saw every third person doing this degree.”
Agents giving misinformation to potential students, as well charging high fees and falsifying documents is a growing problem.
Immigration lawyer Alistair McClymont says agents also tell students it’s easy to get jobs in New Zealand – a big draw card for those wanting to get residency after their study.
“If you look at any of the marketing that the agents do in India, it's not about the quality of the qualification; it's about the benefits that a student will get if they complete a New Zealand qualification. And that's not in terms of the skills they get...it's about what Immigration NZ will offer them after they graduate.”
Agents are paid commission to send students to particular education providers. Universities give a flat rate of about 10 percent commission, while Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics give up to 30. Reports out of India suggest agents are offered up to 50 percent commission to send students to PTEs, making them more appealing to send students to, even if the quality of education is low.
Out of the 29,235 Indian students in New Zealand last year, more than 21,000 of them attended PTEs. Navneet from GoGlobal in India says shoddy agents can say anything to attract students.
“There are ads in newspapers which say ‘go through us, we’ll give you free air ticket, we’ll give you a laptop.’ When such lucrative ads are there, you can understand what is happening.”
Recently the NZ Herald reported that out of the 10,863 declined applications Immigration received from Indian in ten months, 85 percent had been lodged by unlicensed education advisers, student agents and lawyers who are exempt from licensing.
Regulating agents in India is no simple task. While there are about 33 licensed immigration advisors in India, according to Munish Shekhri, there are thousands of others working with students and getting commission from New Zealand companies. But he says the blame can’t solely to put on the agents or even the places offering them commission - the students need to take responsibility, too.
“The big onus is on the student...they have to understand they cannot come to New Zealand and corrupt the country.”
#3: Cheap as chips
Te Puke – a quiet town outside of Tauranga with a population of about 8,000 - is best known for its kiwifruit. It backpackers and camping grounds are full of seasonal workers from the Pacific Islands, plus the odd travellers hoping to make some cash picking in the orchards.
Te Puke is also the home of Royal Business College, self-described as one of the “largest and most respected colleges in New Zealand”.
With four campuses across New Zealand, its Te Puke campus was the most intriguing. The Wireless headed there last month and found there wasn’t much to see.
The Royal Business College campus is located in an industrial block, with a train track a couple hundred metres from its front door. The outside is unassuming with a couple broken chairs and narrow door.
At lunch time, a stream of young Indian boys came out of the building. Surprisingly, there are no other ethnicities and very few women. Some get into their cars and drive to the local McDonalds while others hang around the parking lot. One student says he was paying $12,000 for a business course in Wellington but moved to Te Puke when he was offered his second year for just $7,000. He said it was a cheaper place to live and easier to find a job.
All the students we spoke to worked on Kiwifruit orchards.
While the website says the campus “provides the ideal learning environment for our Diploma courses in Horticulture,” staff at Royal Business College say they are currently only offering business courses in Te Puke. They wouldn’t let us inside but encouraged us to call the owner, Jimmy Royal. He did not return our requests to talk.
The attraction of PTEs is clear: At universities, international students can expect to pay about three times more than domestic students. In India Renjith Narayan, 21, forked out $72,000 for an 18 month masters course at the University of Auckland. It’s no surprise, then, that many hunt for cheaper alternatives.
In New Zealand, PTEs offer courses in almost everything. A course can cost a smidgen of the price of a university degree. There are over 500 PTEs in New Zealand but only about 250 of them are licensed to enrol international students and most of them in central Auckland.
At lunch time, Queen Street starts to resemble the malls in India. Hundreds of young Indians, mostly boys, gather in groups outside their PTEs dressed in distinctly western fashion. Many order fast food and drag on cigarettes. According to information released under the Official Information Act, about 50 education providers have a visa decline rate over 30 percent. This includes popular PTEs like National Technology Institute, Royal Business, and Newton College of Business & Technology.
The rapid growth in the PTE sector has been driven predominately by the India market. Last year, there were 63,600 international students in the PTE sector - a third of them from India. But as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for and the education standard and facilities can be very low.
Navneet Singh at GoGlobal in India says most of our country’s PTEs are well below standard. “There are specialist PTEs whose infrastructure and standards are as good as universities…but when we talk about generic PTEs, I’ll say 80 percent are not worth what an international student is paying.”
An insider with intimate knowledge of the industry has written to The Wireless describing a range of bad practices at private institutions including courses being taught in Punjabi, students not required to attend classes, and deliberate failing on tests.
“Students are commonly charged "resit fees" when they don't pass an assignment on the first try. Sometimes these fees are sanctioned by the provider, and sometimes they are simply a way for the tutor to make a bit of extra money.”
...there's no focus on education whatsoever in some of these schools.
He says a number of PTEs have had multiple visits from the authorities in the last few years where serious deficiencies were identified. Some related to serious overcrowding following the sharp increase in India students during the English rule change.
“Nothing was done until it was pointed out to the providers that actually, it's not OK to have 45 students in a class that seats 20, with no AC in the middle of summer.”
But it’s not always the students who are unhappy. In fact, Immigration Lawyer Alistair McClymont says he frequently hears complaints from the tutors at PTEs.“They say there's no focus on education whatsoever in some of these schools. They report to me many situations where the student will complain their teacher is requiring them to attend classes.
“They will say their agent, in whatever country they came from, guaranteed that they wouldn't really need to study that hard and wouldn’t need to attend classes and pass exams.”
Earlier this year, it was revealed that NZQA was investigating allegations against a popular PTE called IANZ. The investigation related to complaints made by two employees, who allege they were instructed to prepare hundreds of fake English language test results.
NZQA told RNZ's Insight there are currently 45 ongoing investigations looking at non-compliance issues at education providers. It wouldn’t provide names of the institutions because it could “unreasonably prejudice their commercial position and reduce public confidence in them”.
Paul Chalmers is the founder of Newton College and spokesperson for Auckland International Education Group. He says the current system that evaluates PTEs isn’t robust enough.
The majority of providers in the private sector are doing a good job but the outliers are ruining the market, he says.
“We have been consistently undermined by the practices of a number of small providers that are working with agents to allow students leeway that they should not be allowed.”
With the New Zealand Government’s goal of increasing the sector’s value to 5 billion, more work will need to be done to stop fraud, shoddy PTEs, and limit the damage to New Zealand’s educational reputation.
India Trade Alliance education spokesperson Edwin Paul says the country should act now. “It is a perfect time to clean the market. We talk about educational fraudulent documents but there is fraud that extends beyond that as well.”
The numbers will take a hit initially, he says, but it’s a small price to pay in order to Keep New Zealand an attractive study destination.
“I'd say 25 to 30 percent [decrease] straight off. This is what we need to be prepared for. It's worth losing that much when you compare it to the reputational risk. It is good to do this now because it will be many fold later if we don't fix this now. The impact is significant but it is a manageable impact.”
Navneet Singh agrees, saying the New Zealand Government needs to seal the gaps currently being exploited in the industry. “There are a lot of loopholes in which you can play around with the system which people do.”
“The system only works when the government is a little bit stronger on it. Until then we cannot control people’s greed. It’s a business with a lot of opportunity.”
Geoff Scott, assistant general manager of visa services at Immigration New Zealand, points out that that’s not just New Zealand we should be concerned about.“In some instances, the whole family [in India] is indebted to such an extent they cannot repay their debt. The students that are here are trying to work exceptionally long hours, being exploited at particularly low wages to try and repay the debt.”
The pressure of finances can have devastating effects, he says.
“There been some quite tragic outcomes for some. We know of a number situations where, sadly, students have committed suicide.”
If you have any information on issues raised in this article, contact Mava Enoka.
Additional reporting by RNZ Education Correspondent, John Gerritsen