Reconnecting our exporters to the world

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 22 April 2022

A few years ago, the Prime Minister visiting foreign countries would have barely been news.

However, after two years of borders closed because of Covid, Jacinda Ardern’s trip to Singapore and Japan is more than just noteworthy. It is most welcome.

As a remote nation, New Zealand always had to work extra hard to remain on the world’s radar.

The pandemic amplified this challenge. Global security threats, supply chain disruptions, and the demise of the rules-based international order make strong international relations more vital than ever.

Thus, it is excellent to see the Prime Minister travelling again, beginning with two countries in our wider region that share many of New Zealand’s strategic concerns.

It is also good to see the Prime Minister bringing along a high-level group of business leaders. Agriculture and tourism are well represented, underscoring that New Zealand is open for business in its traditional export-oriented industries.

However, one key export industry is missing from the list of CEOs accompanying the Prime Minister. That industry is education.

The export education sector was hard hit by New Zealand’s closed borders over the past two years.

Education services providers were affected at all levels. There are small and medium-sized companies that cater to international students in colleges. There are private providers of academic and vocational education at the tertiary level. Then there are universities, which have historically had substantial numbers of international students.

Singapore and Japan are not our traditional markets for education exports. Perhaps this explains why there were no education exporters in Ardern’s delegation.

As the Prime Minister prepares for her next trip to Asia, we may hope she will be accompanied by a few of our country’s Vice-Chancellors. She might also consider taking a few leaders of secondary student exchange companies on her trip to Europe.

If the government is serious about reviving the education export sector, it would also be well-advised to examine what is holding it back.

New Zealand will have difficulty attracting international students after the disruptions of recent years. It will be even harder to convince would-be students to come here if they also face reduced work entitlements.

New Zealand needs these students to revitalise our education export sector – and to fill casual jobs in our tight labour market.

So well done to the Prime Minister for restarting her international travel schedule. Let us now hope she will pay equal attention to the recovery of our education sector.

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