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Pii-Tuulia Nikula, Eastern Institute of Technology, NZ

As a senior lecturer at Eastern Institute of Technology in New Zealand, Pii-Tuulia Nikula’s research focuses, among other topics, on international education and sustainability. In this interview, Nikula speaks about her work with CANIE – Climate Action Network for International Educators – how New Zealand’s response to Covid-19 may benefit its international education offering, and the difficult path agents are having to map their way through the crisis.



"It's not all bad news, but it is a very challenging time"

The PIE: How has Covid-19 impacted New Zealand and your work? 

Pii-Tuulia Nikula: New Zealand hasn’t had too many new cases in the past few weeks: it has been zero or single digits. Most people are quite happy with our go hard, go early approach. Now schools are open again and we can have gatherings of up to 100 people.

“Students are happy to come here and parents are happy to send kids here whenever the borders re-open”

New Zealand has established an international student hardship fund. Along with a $1 million government announcement, we had a wage subsidy scheme for employers that also covered international students. That was already helping, but obviously not enough so the new hardship fund is a great way to say that, ‘yes, you matter’. We have to also come to the game and support students, and understand that a lot of international students might need their part-time employment. It’s not fair to say “well, you figure it out”.

This might all play in New Zealand’s favour because students are happy to come here and parents are happy to send kids here whenever the borders reopen. New Zealand has portrayed that we do care about people.

When we had the full lockdown [education] moved to online delivery mode. Most higher education institutions are online until our semester two in July – it’s more distraction if you move back to classroom only to maybe have to move back to online again.

In a way, there is a silver lining to these kinds of situations because they force people to do things differently. This type of innovation has been waiting to happen, but there’s always a lot of naysayers. Some people talk about things bouncing back to how they used to be but I think some digital innovations are going to stick.

The PIE: Do you think there are any limitations with those digital approaches?

PTN: It takes a lot of time, resources and knowledge to digitally transform teaching. During this crisis, there wasn’t time or resources to fully prepare for it. So obviously, anywhere globally would need to further improve those platforms.

There has been discussion that being online is not the same experience. Most students come to higher education for the experience, not just the lectures. So I do think a lot of it is going to be bouncing back. But hopefully there will be more flexibility in terms of delivery modes. It has opened that window of change. I think people will keep the good bits and then remove the bad, resulting to a more blended model of delivery.

The PIE: In terms of kind of your work with CANIE, this is quite an interesting situation.

PTN: We organised the Climate Action for International Educators virtual summit recently. I think all of us really agreed on the value that international education brings to students. One of our keynote speakers, Robin Shields from the UK, was saying we actually need international education more than ever. We need those skills and people to have an international outlook with an understanding of different cultures because we need to work together.

“We actually need international education more than ever”

We had more than 300 people in those two summits which was great to see. Quite often, if you’re interested in climate action and you work within the international education sector, you might be the only one at your institution that is passionate about that discussion. A lot of people were able to see that there are people who think this is important.

It is still early days. Maybe with Covid-19, you can see more people are thinking about how can we still give our students opportunities when they can’t travel physically. For example, Hans De Wit was talking about internationalisation at home.

And then, there are virtual recruitment and exchanges , transnational education and different ways to offset and reduce emissions. Time will show if that’s going to be the new way of doing things, but it’s the beginning of the discussion.

The PIE: I was also reading some of the research you have done regarding agents. How do they fit into this climate change issue?

PTN: If we have good, reliable agent networks, we don’t necessarily have to always travel overseas as an institution. We have somebody who is actually based in those countries already, [which will] help us to reduce emissions.

Agents will obviously play a role in the future as well, but many are now going through hard times. Existing students have needs – some may want to return back to their home country. And then there are  new students who are supposed to start in July or September.

It’s difficult to give them information because we don’t have full information. There will be financial concerns if [agents] can’t start sending students to different countries soon. It’s really the management of that uncertainty that’s going to be an issue for agents and institutions.

The PIE: How is this uncertainty being dealt with?

PTN:I spoke in an Education New Zealand webinar for agents about this. It’s about scenario planning and thinking about the different scenarios between now and next year. What does it mean for your business model and what type of actions might you need to take? It would be easier for all of us if we knew, ‘okay, in September the students can go again’. It [would be] easier to plan.

For New Zealand and Australia, the borders are closed; only citizens or permanent residents can come and have to go through a two-week quarantine. So currently international students can’t come here. Our next intake is in July, but still, nobody knows if the border is  going to be opening for international students.

The NZ minister of education has indicated that he’s considering this, because for institutions it’s going to be a big challenge. They are relying on international tuition fees. We might allow international students to come first with a two-week quarantine. Institutions would need to make sure that they are isolated for those two weeks.

“If we have good, reliable agent networks, we don’t necessarily have to always travel overseas as an institution”

Some universities have been talking about having to do pay cuts or redundancies. If we don’t see borders opening soon, I think we’re going to see some language schools and private institutions that fully rely on international students really struggle.

There are also discussions about an Australia–New Zealand bubble. That’s not going to help with international education, but I guess there could be bubbles with other countries that are doing well.

The PIE: Do you think specific agents will be more liable to having financial difficulties for example if they focus on specific markets? 

PTN: If agents are just focusing on one country, they are more vulnerable. You may not have options to offer to your students. A study looking at how prospective international students think about online delivery or how long they’re happy to wait found most of them were happy to postpone by up to maybe a half a year.

Much depends on [agents’] current financial situations – how solid their situation was coming into this crisis is. If the scenario is that [they] don’t send anybody for half a year from here, [they may] have to scale back. There will probably be some redundancies or [cost saving] actions.

The financial downturn might be an issue for some families to send kids abroad. But then again, during high unemployment, people are also more eager to study.

The PIE: Are smaller and larger agencies at different levels of risk?

PTN: There are two different conflicting trends. If you are a strong enough agency and you come through the Covid-19 situation, then you might even have a stronger position after the crisis. The institutions will need you and they might not be able to start travelling straight away. So they really need to use those agents even more. And you might actually have fewer competitors.

It’s not all bad news, but it is a very challenging time. For agents, dealing with postponements and deferrals is a lot of extra work. You obviously don’t get paid for it. And you also have students you have recruited who are interested in going, but they can’t go. So you are losing that income.

You also have to try to figure out what’s going on in all of your destination countries and you might get very limited information, for instance, nobody knows when the borders are going to re-open,so it’s not an easy situation to be in.

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