Stakeholders are weighing in on the appointment of education minister Chris Hipkins as the new prime minister of New Zealand, after outgoing PM Jacinda Ardern resigned in a surprise speech on January 17.
Speculation has mounted about how he will do in the job, and for the international education sector, how he will be perceived going into the role.
“Chris Hipkins will bring a strong understanding of the tertiary education sector to his new role as New Zealand’s prime minister,” Auckland University of Technology VC Damon Salesa told The PIE News.
“We were heartened by his statements late last year as minister of Tertiary Education where he recognised the importance of international education to New Zealand and his promotion of New Zealand as an international education destination in Asia and North America,” he continued.
Nicknamed “Mr Fixit” by the Labour Party – the party which he now leads – he was picked “unanimously” to succeed Ardern, just under a year after he vowed to prioritise “value over volume” in terms of the international education strategy.
“The ideal international student for us is one who leaves and wants to come back years down the track and bring their new family with them and maintain those links with the people that they become close with while they were in New Zealand,” Hipkins told The PIE at last year’s NAFSA conference.
“Not flooding the system with a whole lot of [visa] applications that then grind everything to a halt has been a key factor in the way we’ve staggered our reopening,” Hipkins said.
Hipkins’ tenure has not only been up and down in terms of education – he was also appointed Covid-19 minister during the second term of Labour’s government, and received criticism for Auckland’s tough lockdowns.
“He knows the vital contributions international students”
However, Hipkins’s “hyper-competent” reputation landed him in the offices of education and policing, according to a Victoria University of Wellington academic – and according to the chair of Universities New Zealand, he recognises how vital international education is to New Zealand.
“He knows the vital contributions international students – whether undergraduate, postgraduate or post-study – make not only to New Zealand’s eight universities but also to New Zealand’s society and economy, and how throughout their lives they are an invaluable connection between New Zealand and their home countries,” Cheryl de la Rey, also chair of the New Zealand Vice Chancellors’ committee, said.
“Prime minister Hipkins also knows how crucial it is to rebuild New Zealand’s international student numbers now the country’s Covid-19 border restrictions are fully lifted, as they have been since August 2022,” Rey added.
There were warnings from another stakeholder that while he has been an “effective and engaged” education minister, there are still policies that did not go down well with the sector.
“We were extremely disappointed that he reintroduced the Export Education Levy for 2023 at a time when providers, particularly the English language sector, need those funds to be selling the New Zealand study experience,” Kim Renner, executive director of English New Zealand, told The PIE.
The cabinet confirmed on January 1 that after its suspension in 2022 the Export Education Levy would be reinstated this year.
Both Renner and Rey, however, praised Hipkins – and Ardern’s – efforts to further the country’s international education agenda promoting the country through major overseas trips. Renner said he “gave first-hand insight into how it connects us globally, the important role of education agencies and how highly regarded we are is as a quality destination”.
“We were extremely disappointed that he reintroduced the Export Education Levy for 2023″
“We greatly appreciated this support and expect it to continue under Hipkins’s successor as education minister and now Hipkins is prime minister himself,” Rey said.
Auckland University of Technology’s PVC international Meredith Smart also added that his tenure as education minister during “covid years” means he is “probably more aware than anyone of the impact the loss of international students on the universities, the community and the economy”.
Stakeholders cannot see into the future and how Hipkins will perform for the sector in his new role at the top, his interests in the rights of students go all the way back to when he was a student himself – going so far as getting arrested for protesting student fee hikes.
For Salesa, progress is key for this next phase of Hipkins career, and the next government. In October, New Zealand will have a general election, so Hipkins has only 10 months to prove himself – and the Labour party have some catching up to do in the polls.
“There are some key challenges and opportunities on which we would like to see progress under his Government. These include more competitive immigration policy settings to make the country a more attractive study destination,” Salesa added.
Read The PIE’s full interview with Chris Hipkins at NAFSA 2022.
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