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What UK universities can learn from New Zealand’s COVID-19 response

COVID-19 has enormously impacted the international education sector. Results from the 2020/21 edition of the International Student Barometer (ISB) show a marked negative impact on student satisfaction. However, as demonstrated in i-graduate’s recent global report The global student experience; 2021 insights and analysis from the world’s largest student survey, satisfaction amongst international students studying in New Zealand has remained relatively high.  

With this in mind, there are some valuable lessons that the UK can learn from New Zealand’s COVID-19 strategy. 

In February 2020, New Zealand’s government locked down the country and completely closed borders. Initially, this caused frustration amongst international students studying in New Zealand. In their responses to the International Student Barometer, several students left comments expressing their apprehension about New Zealand’s closed borders; the emotional stress of being unable to return home or see their families was mentioned frequently. However, the data collected in the International Student Barometer also tells us that despite this, 89% of international students at participating New Zealand institutions were satisfied or very satisfied with their university experience overall – this is notably higher than the global benchmark (82%). Compare this with the UK, where overall satisfaction for international students was down on the global average. 

With the pivot to online teaching, value for money has been a critical area of insight from the ISB. In the UK, only two thirds of international students thought their institution offered good value for money this year, ten percentage points lower than our global comparison. 

In contrast, over three-quarters (76%) of international students at participating New Zealand institutions agreed or strongly agreed that their current programme provides good value for money. This is interesting, as much like the UK (and the rest of the world), the lack of in-person teaching received was highlighted as negative in the student comments.  

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So, what did New Zealand do differently, and how did their participating institutions continue to offer programmes that provided good value for money? 

Analysis of student comments demonstrate that New Zealand institutions offered regular webinars and exceptional online counselling services. Many students highlighted that accessibility support services exceeded expectations, particularly with regards to moving studies online. Strong technological innovation has been another key theme within the open comments, with regards to both learning management systems and keeping students connected.  

The rigour with which New Zealand’s international education sector responded to COVID-19 has seen New Zealand jump to the top of rankings in almost all areas within the International Student Barometer. This, combined with a focus on embracing technology and championing online student support services, has played a key part in New Zealand’s success. 

Related article: Student support and wellbeing: technology, data and peer support - In conversation with HE.  Outputs from a roundtable discussion with 12 senior leaders from UK HE.  

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