Another fact that has received little attention in
recent reports is that the University of Otago has the third
highest percentage of international students of New Zealand
universities, and also earns the third highest amount in
international tuition fee income.
Performing a traditional Malaysian dance in the Octagon are
Seenee Ng, Fang Juinn Yu, Barbara Nakan and Zaini Dhazam.
They were among 20 dancers from the Otago Malaysian Student
Association who celebrated Malaysia Day in Dunedin in July.
A total of 483 students from Malaysia (the second highest
number by nationality after 652 from the United States)
studied at the University of Otago in 2011. Photo by Peter
The university of Otago is considering raising its cap on
international student numbers. Prof Sarah Todd,
pro-vice-chancellor (international) sees this as part of
continuing efforts to recruit such students.
Mark Twain once famously noted, "facts are stubborn things,
but statistics are pliable". Anybody trying to follow the
recent discussions around international student numbers and
the "cap" on the same at the University of Otago may
understandably be confused, as different numbers, usually
covering just a subset of our international student roll,
have been thrown into the arena.
It may seem strange, but different definitions are used for
different purposes to count the number of international
students at a university. To name just three: a count of all
individual international students; the full-time-equivalent
that follows from this (so that two individuals, here for
half a year each, are weighted the same as one here for a
whole year); and the subset of international students who pay
full cost fees.
This last definition of international excludes a large group
of students, namely international PhD students.
The Government has partially funded this group in recent
years to encourage them to study here.
Far from a trend of declining international student numbers,
the University of Otago welcomed its largest cohort of
international students yet in 2011. Last year's record
international student roll - 2798 students in all followed
three successive years of growth averaging around 6% a year.
Although international enrolments have declined this year, we
are still on track to enrol our second largest number of
Another fact that has received little attention in recent
reports is that the University of Otago has the third-highest
percentage of international students of New Zealand
universities, and also earns the third-highest amount in
international tuition fee income.
While it is true that we have a "cap" on international
student numbers of 12% of the total student body, it is also
true that we have never declined an application on the basis
of that cap. In practice, the cap operates more as a guide
than a quota, and can be adjusted at the University Council's
Indeed, in light of current Government ambitions to maximise
the economic benefit that New Zealand earns from export
education, and in recognition of ongoing financial
constraints and limited opportunities to increase its
funding, the University has been reviewing that 12% figure.
Some weeks ago, well before the recent flurry of comment,
senior management agreed that a recommendation to raise the
cap to 15% be made to the council.
Why do we have a cap on international enrolments and why has
the number been set at 12%?
In the early years of this century, New Zealand's popularity
as a study destination soared, partly in response to
comparatively relaxed immigration and admission requirements.
In particular, the number of Chinese students studying in New
Zealand was at an all-time high, and hence this period is
often referred to as the "Chinese bubble".
Unfortunately, following the collapse of a number of private
providers that had sprung up to take advantage of this
opportunity, the bubble burst, and New Zealand's reputation
One clear lesson was that there are risks associated with
export education. These include both the obvious financial
risk (through over-reliance on an income source that can be
turned off due to factors beyond an institution's control)
and also the reputational risk that can result from bad
To deal with some of these issues, responsible providers
examined their own practices and strategies.
Otago's considerations included the number of international
students that could be effectively integrated into its
programmes and the wider community, remembering that Dunedin
itself already plays host to a large influx of "out-of-town"
New Zealand students, and that we are determined the presence
of international students enriches the educational experience
Hence the 12% cap, which came into force in 2003 (replacing
the previous 10% cap) and with an accompanying requirement
that no more than 25% of international students come from any
one country, was born.
Under this capped system, Otago's international roll has more
than doubled over the past decade, from 1235 students in
2001, to 2798 in 2011. It is interesting to observe that
Otago's level of achievement - with caps and diversification
strategies in place - has delivered almost exactly the
quantum of growth over the past decade that Government is now
seeking from export education over the next 15 years.
International growth has, inevitably, been lumpy in nature.
But the manner in which Otago has approached such growth has
enabled it to weather the two major storms of the past decade
- the bursting of the Chinese bubble and the global economic
crisis - better than most.
Our international student cohort is more diverse than before,
whether measured by the number of countries represented (more
than 100 in 2011), or the spread of international students
across subject areas and between undergraduate and
New Zealand universities now rate among the best in the world
in terms of the experience that international students have,
and Otago leads New Zealand on many of those indicators
(source: International Student Barometer 2011/12).
We also have a strong alumni network around the world - more
than 17,850 of our total 85,773 alumni live outside of New
Zealand - and they express a positive commitment to both New
Zealand as a country and the institution in which they
The value of that word-of-mouth publicity and willingness to
recommend New Zealand as a place to study cannot be
underestimated. This is especially so as many other countries
and institutions respond to funding constraints and economic
issues similar to our own with ambitious targets around the
recruitment of international students.
Many rivals can offer a quality education that is closer,
both geographically and culturally, to students looking to
study abroad. The so-called tyranny of distance is not the
only challenge faced in recruiting students. Like all
exporters, we also face the challenge of increasing our share
of the international student market when the New Zealand
dollar is at a high, and many parts of the world are facing
the ongoing impact of the global financial crisis.
In the past, New Zealand was perceived, and indeed marketed,
as a relatively cheap place to study. No longer being able to
rely on that competitive advantage means we need to be even
more strategic around both our recruitment of, and reliance
on, international students and the income they bring.
What can we as an institution do to respond to both the
targets in the minister's leadership statement on
international education and our own goals and ambitions?
Increasing the cap from 12% to 15% would give Otago scope to
increase its international student roll by more than 500
students. At the same time, it is vital that every student
who comes here continues to feel welcomed and valued, and is
not just seen as a cash cow.
International students add vibrancy and colour to our
communities, as well as helping domestic students learn more
about the world.
A quality education system and a welcoming environment are
not enough on their own. We need to reconsider what
programmes we offer, and it is encouraging to see significant
moves have been made in recent months on course-work masters'
degrees, an area where New Zealand lags behind competitors
such as Australia and the UK. These changes should be
welcomed both by international and domestic students seeking
alternatives to traditional thesis-based programmes.
Far from ignoring or, indeed, being "anti" recruiting
international students - as has been claimed - the University
of Otago is fully committed to meeting and stretching its own
targets in this area, and working with other New Zealand
universities towards achieving national objectives.