Simon Draper is Executive Director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation Te Whītau Tūhono.
OPINION: New Zealand parents are painfully aware that the student experience for their children isn’t what it used to be. There have been numerous disruptions to classes, exams and extracurricular activities since the pandemic began.
Nationwide, less than 50% of the students attended regularly in the first semester of this year. Even elementary school children are now masters of video conferencing and older students have become accustomed to postponed appointments and shorter school days. Unfortunately, some students were forced to leave school early.
By tertiary level, students have become accustomed to not going to campus and missing out on the experiences that previous generations enjoyed. It’s certainly a stark change from the pre-Covid era, when many young Kiwis went on offshore exchanges as part of their studies – and then headed to OEs after graduation.
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Of course, New Zealand is far from alone when it comes to educational disabilities. After more than two years of distance learning, millions of students in the Philippines returned to school for the first time last week – marking the end of one of the longest school closures in the world.
This month marked a bright light on the horizon for New Zealand’s education system as the country is now fully open to international student visa applications from all countries. The pandemic has been reported to have cost New Zealand educational institutions more than $1 billion in lost fees due to reduced student numbers, according to figures collected through the government’s education export levy. The providers will therefore breathe a sigh of relief collectively.
But as the world begins to emerge from bubbles, be they budgetary or national bubbles, no one should assume things will go back to how they were in 2019.
Internationally, the pandemic has reinforced existing education trends. New delivery models have emerged – various online platforms, learning hubs, mobile learning and virtual reality to name a few.
Recognizing the changes happening around the world, Education New Zealand, the agency responsible for international education, launched a new Education Innovation Fund this year, providing $1.6 million for six projects, including an online e-commerce programme for aborigines and an online medical training course in virtual reality.
Asia has traditionally been the main market for our export education sector – but it is also a region that is leading some major education innovations internationally. Education systems in many countries, particularly in North Asia, have a reputation for being competitive as parents seek to ensure their children the best possible future. No wonder, then, that the region is also competitive when it comes to innovation.
China, for example, has long been recognized as a leader in the use of smart technology in classrooms. At the beginning of the pandemic, China quickly rolled out a national cloud classroom platform for elementary and secondary school students. But even in the pre-Covid era, the government has unveiled a plan to modernize education, which looks to 2035 and includes aims to narrow disparities across the country. It had also spurred the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in schools.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) just opened a virtual reality classroom as part of its larger plan to create a fully immersive “metaverse campus” – MetaHKUST – so its students don’t have to worry about geographic limitations have to . In announcing the plan, university spokespeople noted that the use of mixed virtual reality would provide students with a more immersive and interactive experience than video conferencing tools.
The Western world has long viewed Asia as a potential supplier of international students to help subsidize their education systems. However, this model will change as more Asian universities climb the global rankings, attracting more students from across the region and the world.
In the run-up to the pandemic, China attracted more than half a million international students, according to the global education network QS, ranking among the top five study destinations internationally. Chinese universities have become very competitive in science and technology and are increasingly leading in fields such as AI, virtual reality and pharmacy. Knowledge of Mandarin is also becoming increasingly valuable internationally as China plays a larger role in the global economy.
Other Asian countries such as Malaysia, South Korea and Japan have developed strategies to attract international students in recent years.
Aside from the immediate economic impact of international education, it is one of the most important ways young people connect across borders – something that is all too easily taken for granted.
Research from the Asia New Zealand Foundation tells us that while young New Zealanders are interested in studying or working in Asia, they also worry that the pandemic will make it more difficult and expensive to do so – and that they are generally more reluctant to to travel abroad.
This is worrying because Asia-related skills and abilities are becoming increasingly important to our workforce. Young New Zealanders must retain the ability to develop cross-cultural intelligence and network internationally, even as home-based learning has become the norm. So at Asia NZ Foundation we will do everything in our power to encourage them to take advantage of the opportunities that are emerging in the region.
The rapid changes taking place in Asia will help determine the future shape of our export education sector. More broadly, they will also affect how young Kiwis learn. New Zealand needs to keep a close eye on developments to ensure our young people do not miss opportunities and fall behind their peers across the region.