Brett Berquist was one of the final people I saw before the Covid lockdown, catching up (and chatting about this scary new virus) as the 2020 AIEA conference wound down. I wanted to hear what it was like to weather the pandemic and its enormous impact on international education from a non-American vantage. Here are some insights from the director international at the University of Auckland, edited for clarity and space.
What was Covid’s initial impact?
When the New Zealand government restricted travel from China, half of my Chinese students were here, but the new students hadn’t arrived. We took a bunch of courses online and set up individual advising sessions with each of the 2,000 students in China. We also offered them free summer school. This is going to sound stupid with hindsight. But at the time, we were thinking that we’d get them back here later in 2020 and get them back on track. Obviously, that didn’t materialize. They took courses online, and we managed to retain about 1,500. In the circumstances, that was wildly successful.
How did you shift your thinking as it became clearer that this would not be a short-term challenge?
As the duration of the pandemic became clearer, some of our early naivete began to wear off. We rolled out learning centers in China. We took a couple of our partners, and we gave students in China the choice: You may continue studying at home, that’s fine. If you want to defer until the borders are open, that’s fine. But if you want more of a sense of routine and social cohesion, you can relocate to a Chinese campus and study with us online, but in a more traditional student life setting. Just a couple weeks ago, we rolled out a “study hub” in Vietnam. It’s still studying from home but with extra advising support, extra career support. When social distancing allows, we have a hip space where students can come and study there and we’ll zoom into engagement activities.
We also started a program we call Auckland Advantage. Students who complete two semesters online with a full load in the subsequent semester get a free course automatically. They don’t have to ask for it. While we’ve been successful in having new students start, as the pandemic continues, we have students in year two and year three, saying, I’m really struggling, I think I’m going to take a break or drop my load. This is psychological motivation, encouragement to help them continue with their degree.
New Zealand shut its international borders. What was it like to be in such a tight bubble?
When we had our first cases of COVID in New Zealand, we went into hard lockdown. The speed with which the country mobilized was just incredible. Then we came out of it, and frankly, life returned to normal. We couldn’t travel outside New Zealand, but inside, you go where you want. My 2020 travel goal became to go to every town in New Zealand that gets a mention on the nightly news’ weather. I explored some corners I might not have gone to otherwise.
Slamming the door shut hard has worked for us in a way I can’t imagine it working in the Northern Hemisphere. And of course, since that works, you’re not just going to fling the borders wide open. There are conditions that need to be met to establish that it’s going to be safe. [The New Zealand government late last week announced
a phased-in resumption of quarantine-free travel.]
What impact did the border closures have on your international enrollment?
We forecast the same sort of drastic plummet that everyone else did in 2020. We were only down eight percent. In 2021 we were up 40 percent in new starts — a big rebound. Right now I’m sitting one percent below my record enrollment level. That’s very much bucking the trend in New Zealand.
Will the pandemic change your approach to international education going forward?
We’re looking at it as kind of a silver lining, a golden opportunity to reset. Strategies we were working towards, we can accelerate and leapfrog past. New Zealand was not a big player in online or transnational education. It was, come to New Zealand to earn your full degree in this beautiful country. Now it’s all about study with New Zealand. We can have blended and online education and we can look at broader markets. We’ve leaned into that harder and faster than you possibly could have imagined.