Luxon criticises slow return of international students

National Party leader Christopher Luxon says the government's handling of the economy is to blame...
National Party leader Christopher Luxon says the government's handling of the economy is to blame for the tertiary sector's financial woes. Photo: RNZ
Bolstering the tertiary education sector by building international student numbers back to what they were pre-pandemic would be a focus for a National-led government, its leader says.

The Government has announced an extra $128 million for cash-strapped universities and ordered a review of how tertiary institutions in New Zealand are funded.

But Christopher Luxon says the Government is to blame for the sector's financial woes, and the cash injection would not have been needed if it was in power.

He told RNZ's Morning Report the "polytech mega-merger" Te Pūkenga had been a "massive distraction" and the Government was taking too long to attract international students back to the country, post-pandemic.

"We would have rebuilt the overseas student industry, which was a huge source of university funding - in fact our fourth-biggest export earning sector in New Zealand.

"We've been incredibly lazy, incredibly slow and the government's done an abysmal job of building that sector back."

Luxon also blamed the Government's handling of the economy for the tertiary sector's financial woes, saying under National "we wouldn't be living with high inflation, high interest rates and an economy in recession".

Falling university enrolments due to increased numbers of students failing to pass university entrance exams were also an issue, he said.

"Fifty percent of our kids now fail the university entrance exam, so you're getting lower enrolments; they don't know the basics well and that's because the government, again, hasn't been focused on teaching basics over the past six years."

University entrance pass rates have hovered around 50 percent for the past decade, falling as low as 45.9 percent in 2014 under the previous National-led government.

PM's visit to China 'very constructive'

Luxon said it was important Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was in China "advancing New Zealand's interests" and he believed the relationship between the two countries was characterised by mutual respect.

Hipkins described his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Tuesday night as "warm… and incredibly constructive".

The meeting's focus on economics was the right approach, Luxon said, and he also believed it had been "very constructive".

"I think between successive [New Zealand] governments of different parties there's strong bi-partisan alignment on how to manage the relationships across the world and China's one we've had a long-standing relationship [with] for over 50 years."

Plane controversy

Luxon said he stood by comments he made earlier in the week he would travel on commercial aircraft when attending international engagements if elected prime minister.

His statement came after it was revealed a back-up plane had shadowed the delegation to China as far as Manila amid fears the main Defence Force plane would break down, as has happened on previous trips.

Luxon said the Defence Force planes currently used were unreliable, higher-maintenance and had passed their useful life.

"The Air Force has done a great job being able to keep them airworthy and operational but we're in now a recession and a cost-of-living crisis, thank you to this government, and buying a new VIP plane isn't a priority... you may wish it to be different but the reality is that we should be using commercial or charter planes."

The Air Force's Boeing 757s were "nearing the end of their economic lives" and were due for replacement between 2028 and 2030, a spokesperson for the prime minister said, but Luxon said replacing the planes would not be a priority for a National-led government.

"I can tell you in that first term we're going to be focused on how do we fix inflation, how do we get interest rates down? How do we get this country growing again instead of declining?

"The reality is, on a trade delegation many of the business partners choose to travel commercial rather than on the 757 anyway. I've been part of those in my past life."