Week in Review

Visa delays could cost international student market $33m

Significant and widespread delays in processing visas is leading to millions in losses for the international student market, and cancelled tourist groups.

Those in the Institute of Technology and Polytech (ITP) sector say they expect the delays to cost at least $33.4 million, and uncertainty in the market is impacting on New Zealand’s attractiveness.

There have also been increased delays in the processing of holiday visas, leading to tour groups cancelling trips, having an impact on tourism.

The issue of visa processing delays was raised during a Budget 2019 estimates hearing at the Education and Workforce Select Committee on Wednesday, where National MP Michael Woodhouse asked how the minister could justify a $10 million reduction in the amount budgeted for visa application processing (from $257m in 2018/19 to $247m in 2019/20) given the delays.

Some of the saved money had gone towards online technologies and parts of the change process.

Despite the change of processes, Immigration New Zealand (INZ) still considered every application separately to make sure it aligned with domestic immigration policy and regulations, and INZ said processing times would always depend on the complexity of the application and whether it was received in a “decision-ready state”.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway acknowledged the delays at the select committee hearing.

He said there had been adjustments made to the change process, which had seen more processing move online. And offices in Beijing, New Delhi and London had been closed, to bring processing back onshore, as well as the consolidation of New Zealand offices.

"The volumes we are seeing are materially outstripping the forecast volumes.”

“I’m concerned about the visa processing times,” Lees-Galloway said, adding that he had raised this with INZ.

Meanwhile, INZ head Greg Patchell said the delays were due to demand. The number of visa applications was “unprecedented” in some areas.

"The volumes we are seeing are materially outstripping the forecast volumes.”

The department was recruiting more staff, and expanding its Hamilton office, to deal with the demand. Patchell said INZ would be able to access additional funding through technical adjustments to deal with the issue.

A response to a written question from Woodhouse to the minister showed between November 2017 and February 2019, there had been an increase in the time taken to process 75 percent of visa applications in 14 out of the 18 visa categories.

"After analysing market reaction, ENZ assesses the ongoing visa processing delays as impacting negatively on New Zealand's overall attractiveness an education destination for overseas students, and on its competitiveness internationally."

The wait time on holiday visas had increased 82 percent – in February 2019, 75 percent of these visas were processed in 20 days.

It was taking 60 percent longer to process essential skills work visas – up to 69 days.

Post-study work visa processing times had increased 93 percent over that period, and the amount of time it took to get a fee-paying student visa was up 11 percent.

There had been anecdotal evidence the lag in processing holiday visas was leading to people cancelling trips, having a financial impact on the tourism industry.

And those in the international education market were concerned about the millions at stake because of the delays, as well as impacting New Zealand’s “attractiveness and competitiveness as an international education market”.

In a briefing to the Minister of Education in March, Education New Zealand – the crown entity responsible for the international student market – raised the issue.

Education New Zealand (ENZ) chief executive Grant McPherson said ENZ had been monitoring the visa processing delays and the market reaction.

The sub-sectors in New Zealand – particularly ITPs, private training establishments (PTEs) and English language schools – were seriously concerned about the processing times.

Universities and schools had also experienced visa processing delays and were concerned about the overall slowdown.

ITPs had advised ENZ the potential loss of revenue was $33.36m.

Meanwhile, ENZ was concerned the delays could hinder New Zealand’s ability to meet its New Zealand International Education Strategy goals, including reaching a target value of $6 billion by 2025.

“We seem to be sleep walking into a worsening situation."

There was a lack of certainty in the area, and some offshore agents were unsure whether they should continue marketing New Zealand as a destination.

Woodhouse said when students were unsure of how long it would take to get a visa, and whether they would have to delay study by a semester, they would go elsewhere, like Canada.

It was important to keep quality and timeliness of decision-making high in order to get the economic benefits of visitors, international students and workers, he said.

While the change process might be the right direction or strategy, INZ had to continue to perform at a high level, in terms of its service delivery.

When Woodhouse was minister, he received six-monthly performance reports from INZ, in order to ensure services and performance in the department was high-quality. He questioned whether Lees-Galloway had adopted the practice. The current minister said he did get six-monthly reports, as well as weekly briefings, and had specific briefings and conversations on the issue of student visa delays.

“We seem to be sleep walking into a worsening situation,” Woodhouse said.

The Government is in the midst of carrying out policy work in the areas of migrant worker exploitation, employer-assisted visas and regional skills shortage visas. It implemented changes to post-study work rights in November 2018.

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