Opinion & Analysis

India's Students and NZ's FTA

While Prime Minister Christopher Luxon races to secure a free trade agreement with India before his term ends, Immigration New Zealand’s continuing caution around issuing Indian student visas could derail delicate negotiations worth billions.

Since the start of this year, Immigration NZ has declined 49 percent of the 2694 study visa applications made from India.. Compare that with China’s decline rate of 3.5 percent. This difference does not go unnoticed by the Indian High Commission in Wellington.

Of course there is some justification for Immigration NZ's caution around applications. Large numbers of them have issues around accuracy of information.

Past surges in Indian student enrollments were linked to suspected visa fraud and the exploitation of students once they’re in New Zealand. Some applications are not authentic, with the applicant wanting to enter NZ to work, rather than to study. The Government needs to figure out how to improve the quality of applications, and the percentage that are successful.

These students and the experience in attempting to enter NZ  could undermine the efforts for an FTA with India because the optics are not good: India declined. China accepted.

New Zealand’s relationship with China is a sore point for some in India. The two countries have a strained relationship. At least 20 Indian soldiers and four Chinese troops have been killed in clashes since 2020.

The head of an Indian think tank recently mentioned he thought New Zealand was China’s puppet. This statement just the latest reminder of the power of perception. How things look are often more important than how they are. 

Last year was the worst year on record for universities, who for the first time recorded a collective financial loss. 

Things are on the improve though, and foreign students are playing their part in that recovery. 

Let’s imagine Education and Immigration NZ had accepted the 1300 Indian students turned away, who were actually quality candidates who went on the pay to study in New Zealand.

A year at the University of Auckland costs on average $45,000 for an international student, so if they all completed a bachelor's degree that batch of students would pay $175.5 million in fees. 

Meanwhile across the Tasman, Immigration authorities have moved to address the similar issues of fake and fraudulent education visa applications. 

Australian Universities last year revealed that nearly half the students granted visas never actually turned up for their courses. 

At the same time record numbers of visas are being declined - for the same reasons cited by Immigration NZ.

While the policy has met with criticism from some quarters, the Australian government insists the sector needs to be restructured in a way that can address the bogus application issue.  

Immigration NZ similarly needs to incentivise offshore student recruitment agencies so they only support genuine students. Make a green list for reputable and trustworthy agencies, and blacklist those that send through fraudulent applications. 

If Prime Minister  Luxon is serious about an FTA with India, New Zealand's approach to Indian student visas can no longer be a peripheral issue. The reward for getting the policy right will be diplomatic goodwill from India, and a financial boost for New Zealand's tertiary education sector..

Jack Marshall is a journalist at the Deccan Herald in Bengaluru, India, supported by The Asia New Zealand Foundation