Post-study Work Visa issued for study “outside” New Zealand during pandemic

In late 2022, an international student who had just completed a Master of Engineering at a top New Zealand university lodged an application for an Open Post-study Work Visa. The graduate’s postgraduate studies had a specific focus on wastewater management. They also came to New Zealand with more than 10 years of water management engineering experience gained in large international cities. In light of recent flooding in the North Island and ongoing calls to upgrade our cities’ aging water infrastructure, surely such a graduate would be considered a ‘prime candidate’ for a Post-study Work Visa, right?

Unfortunately, this candidate was initially declined their visa because they were not able to be physically present to study “in New Zealand” for at least 30 weeks during their course; a key requirement for this visa. Ironically, the sole reason why this graduate could not be physically present in New Zealand during their course was because the New Zealand Government closed our borders in March 2020 and did not re-open them for students until August 2022.

This almost two-and-a-half-year border closure period meant that hundreds of international students from New Zealand’s top tertiary institutes had to undertake all, or a significant proportion, of their studies remotely, which still ended up in those students successfully completing their courses, but no visa simply because they were not here, at no fault of their own.

After approximately four months of robust advocacy, we successfully secured an Open Work Visa for our client in this position as an exception to the standard rules. While we consider this a positive step forward, we are concerned that New Zealand has missed the opportunity to retain a large number of these tertiary graduates who have either assumed they are ineligible for or have been declined a Post-study Work Visa (like this applicant initially was) so have looked for job opportunities to apply their New Zealand qualification in another country.

As we have discussed in numerous articles, we are of the view that New Zealand needs to be doing all it can to attract and retain talent in this post-pandemic, ‘global skill shortage’ environment.  Rigid immigration policy that is not fit for purpose does not help New Zealand’s fight for international talent and, in this policy example, is likely to have led to perverse outcomes.

The central objective of the Open Post-study Work Visa Category is to assist New Zealand to retain “global skills and knowledge”. When specific eligibility criteria of a policy undermine the underlying objective of what the visa is trying to achieve in the first place, something is seriously wrong.

The Open Post-study Work Visa is a superior visa product to an AEWV; it is attractive to prospective employers because it has a low administrative burden (employers don’t need to be accredited or support an employee through the visa application process), and the person is New Zealand qualified.  It is also attractive to graduates because it gives flexibility regarding their choice of employer, allows them to maximise their work output, and is an attractive reward for spending thousands of dollars studying for a New Zealand qualification.

Although securing an Open Post-study Work Visa for our client is a step in the right direction, requesting a visa as an exception to the standard criteria is still fraught with risk and we strongly recommend that applicants seek sound legal representation if they are considering this as an option, because all cases are very different.

The sensible thing to do here however, is change the policy to correct outcomes that are clearly not in the best interests of New Zealand employers who are struggling to find talent, especially so when they have obtained New Zealand qualifications.

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