Export education is a major government priority.
It already earns about $2.5 billion a year in foreign exchange, making it comparable with New Zealand’s combined fish and wine exports.
The government’s goal is to double that to $5 billion within 15 years, which would take the industry roughly to where meat is today.
The benefits are multi-dimensional. The foreign exchange is welcome and also subsidises the state school system, with some of the larger secondary schools generating as much as half of their operational spending from foreign students.
The school principals who drive such efforts are not neo-Marxist PPTA activists but sophisticated businesspeople.
Beyond the money, educationalists argue that foreign students enrich the learning environment, helping mould New Zealand students as citizens of the world, able to compete and win in the global economy.
As New Zealand found with the Colombo Plan, foreign students also become a pro-New Zealand network in their foreign services and business communities back home. Because of the importance of the sector, the government spent its first term reviewing the country’s export education effort.
Finally, Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce decided to re-establish Education New Zealand as a new government agency, shuffling staff from the Ministry of Education International Division, the Education New Zealand Trust and New Zealand Trade & Enterprise.
Charles Finny, a former “head of mission” in Taipei – that is, the de facto ambassador to Taiwan – was brought in as chairman, along with BusinessNZ president Philip Broughton and former Auckland Grammar headmaster John Morris.
If you were a principal looking to make more money for New Zealand and your school, as well as enriching your learning environment and helping establish a pro-New Zealand global network, the future looked bright.
Alas, someone forgot to tell Immigration New Zealand.
To save a staff salary or two, it decided to change how student visa applications would be processed.
The decisions were made by Wellington bureaucrats with no discussion with the education sector, the board of Education New Zealand or the front-office staff offshore. No cost:benefit analysis was done.
Henceforth, Wellington announced, German visa applications must be couriered to London rather than be processed in Berlin, Taiwanese applications sent to Manila, South American applications to Washington, and Japanese and Korean applications to Shanghai.
Any history teacher, even a PPTA committee member, could recognise immediately that the changes would be bad for business – especially with Korea and Japan being our No 2 and No 4 education markets and South America having huge growth potential.
The Wellington bureaucrats have no excuse for their idiocy.
Sure enough, soon after the changes were announced, schools began noticing a drop in 2013 applications, with agents and potential students in the affected markets feeling New Zealand no longer wanted them.
School principals began talking among themselves and complaining to the authorities. They got nowhere.
In early November, a meeting was held at the country’s biggest secondary school, Rangitoto College, on Auckland’s North Shore.
Even at short notice, more than 100 principals and education exporters attended. The general consensus was that the immigration bureaucrats who showed up had not the slightest understanding of the international education market or how their decisions would disadvantage New Zealand compared with Australia and Canada.
The bureaucrats even expressed surprise Japanese and Korean people might be uncomfortable sending their passports to China.
Dismayed, the participants decided Rangitoto College should write to the school’s local MP, Foreign Minister Murray McCully.
Mr McCully has a reputation of using innovative tactics to deal with the bureaucracy.
These include cutting up substandard submissions in front of the very bureaucrats who wrote them.
Mr McCully is not above briefing the media against his own departments or writing open letters criticising them.
When my wife was his housing private secretary in the 1990s, they received complaints from state house tenants in Wainuiomata that their houses were unliveable as Housing NZ painted the interiors. Housing New Zealand bosses insisted that was nonsense.
Mr McCully ordered a government limo to take him to Wainuiomata to find out. The fumes were overwhelming. He backed the tenants and arranged alterative accommodation.
When Mr McCully received the Rangitoto College letter, verbal violence became inevitable. His most trusted Foreign Ministry officials were ordered to fix things. The immigration bureaucrats may not know it yet, but they will reverse their decisions.
Big fiscal issues
This column is a cautionary tale.
It is absolutely absurd that, to save a fistful of dollars, Immigration NZ would have risked undermining the government’s wider export education strategy.
It is the consequence of a government determined to return to surplus but unwilling to cut big-ticket items like Working for Families, interest-free student loans or KiwiSaver subsidies, or raise the age of eligibility for superannuation.
Instead, it fiddles around with trivia, like an offshore immigration officer or two.
Even more absurd is that it requires the intervention of no less than the foreign minister to fix things.
After a horrendous year, John Key deserves a decent holiday. He needs to come back to work determined to deal with the big fiscal issues and stop the trivial penny-pinching that wastes political energy and can so undermine important export industries.