The experiences of international students in New Zealand: Report on the results of the national survey

Publication Details

This publication reports on the results of the national survey of international students. The survey was commissioned by the Ministry of Education to provide information to assist with developing policies and best practices relating to international students studying in New Zealand. The information gathered through the survey will be used to monitor the quality of the education and pastoral support provided to international students; inform policy development relating to international student programmes; and assist providers to review and adjust their service provision and support.

Author(s): Colleen Ward & Anne-Marie Masgoret, Centre for Applied Cross-cultural Research and School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington.

Date Published: June 2004

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Executive Summary


This report summarises the major findings of the Ministry of Education's national survey on international students in New Zealand. The major objectives of the research are to:

  1. Identify the general characteristics of international students in New Zealand, 
  2. Assess the self-reported academic performance or success of international students, 
  3. Determine the satisfaction of international students with educational, pastoral and support services, living conditions and social circumstances, and 
  4. Ascertain the future plans of international students.


The survey instrument, developed through consultation with international students and other key stakeholders, examined the demographic and personal characteristics of international students; the factors influencing choice of New Zealand as a study destination; students' educational experiences and self-reported academic progress; the availability of and satisfaction with institutional services and facilities; students' living arrangements, including homestays; their social relationships; life satisfaction; and their future plans. The instrument was available in English, Chinese, Japanese and Korean with the Asian language versions developed through back-translation.

The target sample was 3000 international students representative of those enrolled in secondary and composite schools, tertiary institutions (universities, polytechnics and other tertiary institutions) and private language schools in New Zealand. Six hundred institutions that were approved signatories to the Code of Practice for Pastoral Care of International Students were contacted to participate in the research, resulting in a final sample of 2736 international students (1219 males and 1491 females). Of these, 1745 (64%) were from secondary schools, 554 (20%) were from tertiary institutions and 437 (16%) were from private language schools. In line with the national enrolment patterns, the international students most commonly resided in Auckland (38%), and those from China formed the largest national group (43%).

As secondary students were over-represented in the sample, and private language students were under-represented, students' responses were weighted by type of educational provider when overall trends were examined. The comparisons of groups (e.g., by gender, region, nationality or sector), however, were based on unweighted data.

Major Findings

New Zealand as a Study Destination

Sixty-two per cent of the students said that New Zealand was their first choice as a study destination. The most important factors in selecting New Zealand were: the English-speaking environment, safety, the international recognition of New Zealand qualifications, the quality of education and cost. Moderately important were factors relating to the "Kiwi experience," i.e., natural beauty and scenery, New Zealand lifestyle and culture, travel and adventure.

Students from Asian countries appeared relatively more concerned with education per se, getting good value for money and a high quality education. Students from Europe, North America, South America and Australia (ESANA) appeared relatively more concerned with the overall experience of international education and were more strongly attracted than Asian students by New Zealand's scenery, life style and culture.

With respect to recommendations for study in New Zealand, students were more influenced by their peers than by teachers or agents. In addition, the internet was seen as more influential than advertisements or direct approaches.

Thirty-six per cent of students agreed that New Zealand education is good value for money, 22% disagreed, and 41% were unsure. Students from ESANA countries were more likely to see New Zealand as good value than those from China or other Asian countries. Forty-five per cent of students said they would recommend New Zealand to friends and family members, 22% would not recommend New Zealand, and 34% were unsure. ESANA students were more likely to recommend New Zealand than students from China or other Asian countries. The substantial proportion of students who responded with "unsure" to these questions suggests a strong potential for more favourable evaluations, depending on the quality of educational experiences in New Zealand.

Educational Experiences and Academic Progress

Most students reported that their academic progress was good (44%) or average (40%). Tertiary students reported better progress than secondary and private language students, and ESANA students reported better progress than Asian students. On the whole, students did not find routine academic tasks difficult. Making oral presentations and taking exams were seen as the most challenging, but these were rated as only slightly difficult. Secondary students found academic activities more demanding than tertiary or private language students.

Students evaluated their programme of studies (course content, feedback, quality of instructors and assessment procedures) in the average to good range. Tertiary students gave more favourable evaluations than secondary or language school students, and ESANA students were more positive than Asian students.

Students acknowledged feelings of cultural inclusiveness in the classroom with the majority agreeing that they "feel included" in their class and that students from different cultural groups work well with each other. However, fewer acknowledged that there were opportunities for other students to learn about their culture in class, suggesting that educators may be missing valuable opportunities to internationalise curricula. Secondary students felt less culturally included than tertiary and private language students, and Asian students felt less included than ESANA students.

Services and Facilities

Most students used agents to assist with their arrangements for study in New Zealand. Although students were more likely to use agents from their own countries, New Zealand agents were seen as providing better services. However, on the whole, satisfaction with agents' services was not high; only one quarter of those who used agents were very or extremely satisfied.

Institutional services and facilities (e.g., health services, accommodation services, vocational guidance, computing services, and learning support) were evaluated favourably, particularly by tertiary students, and just over half of the international students rated their institution's facilities as good or excellent. Despite these positive evaluations, students appeared relatively uninformed about the actual availability of services. In some cases, up to 40% of students were unable to say if their institution provided a particular service. These findings suggest that educational institutions should initiate more thorough and comprehensive strategies for disseminating relevant information to international students.

Living Arrangements

International students in New Zealand most frequently resided in rental accommodation (43%) and homestays (42%) with smaller numbers in hostels, their own home or relatives' homes. The majority of the students reported that they were very or extremely satisfied with their homestay arrangements, and those in homestays were more satisfied with their accommodation than those in rental property or in student hostels.

The relationships with host families were cited as the most satisfying aspect of the homestay. Least satisfying was the weekly cost, which varied by region: Auckland ($191), Christchurch ($184), Wellington ($181), the rest of the North Island ($159), and the rest of the South Island ($157). Few students reported problems with their homestays, but of those mentioned, the most common problems were: difficult family members, lack of freedom or privacy, problems with food, and lack of communication with host family members.

Students' evaluations of their New Zealand "hometowns," were moderately positive. Urban centres (Auckland Wellington and Christchurch) received more favourable evaluations than other parts of the North and South Islands.

Social Relationships and Social Support

Multiple sources of social support were available for international students, and they appeared to rely both on sources in New Zealand and in their home countries. People from students' home countries were particularly important for providing emotional support. Staff in educational institutions and homestay families were seen as most widely available to assist with practical problems. Members of the wider community, however, were rarely seen as available to render support. On the whole students were moderately to very satisfied with the support received although students in Auckland and Christchurch were less satisfied than those living on the rest of the North and South Islands.
Increasing contact and developing friendships with New Zealanders were sources of concern for international students. One in four students said they had no interactions with New Zealanders in social settings, and 35% reported that they had no New Zealand friends. Seventy percent of the international students wanted more New Zealand friends, and findings confirmed that increased contact with New Zealanders was related to positive academic, social and psychological outcomes for international students.

About one in three students found their language skills an impediment to making New Zealand friends; however, New Zealanders' attitudes and behaviours toward international students were also seen as important. Less than half of the students believed that New Zealanders had positive attitudes toward international students, and one in three believed that international students often experience discrimination in New Zealand. The actual incidence of discrimination was reported to be much less frequent, but New Zealand students were cited as the most common source of unfair treatment.

The results of the survey indicate that increasing the frequency and enhancing the quality of intercultural contact between international and domestic students merit high priority in New Zealand educational institutions. The findings also suggest that improving relations between international students and members of the wider community warrant increased attention.

Life Satisfaction

International students were somewhat to moderately satisfied with life in New Zealand. Comparisons with New Zealand students (based on data taken from an international study) showed that students from China and other Asian countries had lower life satisfaction than domestic students. Students in language schools were less satisfied than those in secondary and tertiary institutions. Students residing in Auckland and Christchurch were less satisfied than those in the rest of the North and South Islands (excluding Wellington).

A number of factors were linked to life satisfaction, and these included greater language proficiency, more cultural inclusiveness in the classroom, more contact with New Zealanders, less contact with compatriots, more positive perceptions of New Zealanders' attitudes toward international students, more available social support, and less discrimination.

Future Plans

When asked about future plans, the majority of students (53%) planned to remain in the country after completion of their current course of studies. Forty-two per cent of the students planned to continue their education in New Zealand, 20% planned to return home for additional studies, and 13% planned to continue their education in another country. Twenty-three percent anticipated seeking employment, 10% in their home country, 11% in New Zealand and 2% abroad.

Students in all educational sectors were more likely to plan for a continuation of studies than employment, and this was more frequently in New Zealand than at home. Students from China were more likely to plan to remain in New Zealand than return home for further studies; however, the reverse was true for ESANA students. Students from other Asian countries were relatively equally divided. Those who planned to remain in New Zealand saw the services, facilities and educational programmes at their institutions as better and were more likely to see New Zealand as good value for money than those who planned to leave the country.

Discussion and Recommendations

The results of the study are discussed in relation to the risk factors for the sustained success of New Zealand's export education, student needs and pastoral care, and the social implications of increasing international students in New Zealand.

Recommendations for future research are made and include:

  • Market research on the exposure to, and effectiveness of, various marketing strategies, such as internet and advertisements, and the major international competitors;
  • A longitudinal study of student performance and progress, including a look at movement across secondary, tertiary and private language sectors;
  • In-depth research with international students from China, including qualitative approaches to understanding their experiences in New Zealand and intentions to remain in the country;
  • A survey of community attitudes toward international students in New Zealand;
  • A study of domestic students' perceptions of international students; and
  • The implementation and evaluation of programmes designed to enhance the relationships between domestic and international students.

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