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Inset: Ssai Ovya Sukumar (19, right) is paying international fees to study at university, and her sisters Eesha (17, centre) and Samyuktha (14) are facing the same challenge when they leave Waitaki Girls' High School. Right: Unable to afford international fees for their daughter to go to university, Ozzy Omar (right) has returned to Malaysia with her children, while husband Yusoff Deraman (left) remains working in Oamaru. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED

For most secondary school pupils in Waitaki, pursuing tertiary study is a rite of passage. But this passage can be more arduous for some than others, writes Ruby Heyward.

As of May this year, there were 184,416 migrant workers in New Zealand.

Many brought children to the country with them.

Their children are considered “dependents”, and can attend primary and secondary school in New Zealand free of charge.

But if they decide to attend university, they are no longer considered domestic students and are hit with exorbitant international fees.

Waitaki Multicultural Council migrant support and Waitaki Newcomers Network co-ordinator Christine Dorsey said migrant children often fell into a grey area – they were neither domestic students, nor international students.

And there were two conflicting views that many migrants held, Mrs Dorsey said.

Some thought because they were contributing to the community, paying international fees for their children’s tertiary study was unfair.

“There are other migrants who think this is fair, it’s a privilege. They think it’s lucky to have free [primary and secondary] education.”

Mrs Dorsey understood visas were designed to be short term, and many did not pursue tertiary education, but she wanted migrant children to have the same opportunities to go to university and achieve highly.

Paying international fees, about four times the domestic rate, was no small feat, especially for families with more than one child, Mrs Dorsey said.

But that was what Ssai Ovya Sukumar and her family opted to do.

Ssai was 12 years old when her family moved to New Zealand.

Her father, who works in North Otago as a dairy farm manager, wanted a better education for his three daughters.

Ssai went to Waitaki Girls’ High School, where her sisters, Sai Samyuktha Sukumar and Sai Eesha Sukumar, are still studying.

Until her transition from high school to university, she was treated like a local.

She is now a first year law student at Canterbury University, but said it was not an easy process to get there.

Between a difficult enrolment process and wearisome dealings with Immigration New Zealand, she had to jump through many hoops.

Ssai had to take an expensive English test, despite having NCEA qualifications, provide a medical certificate and get health insurance.

It took a toll on her mental health as she juggled her final year of school and leadership roles.

“It was tiring,” Ssai said.

“You have to deal with it yourself . . . you’re on your own.

“I would have liked a lot more support while going through the process.”

It was a struggle to find a university adviser who could help with her specific situation and she found the experience “isolating”.

Although she understood why the procedures were in place, she did not think it was fair.

“It’s frustrating because I have lived here for so long.”

To pay for her first year of university, Ssai relied on a partial scholarship to scrape together enough to pay the year upfrontĀ  – which was almost four times the domestic rate. One first year law paper cost domestic students $1662 and international students $8400.

And as an international student, she did not qualify for a student loan.

As for next year, she was looking at scholarships and would work over summer – skipping university was not an option.

“That is the whole reason we moved here.”

Her sister, Eesha, who is in year 13 at Waitaki Girls’, was going through a similar experience as she prepared for university.

The family had applied for residency but if it was not accepted by the end of the year, she would take a gap year and work full-time to pay for her international fees.

The family hoped their residency application would be accepted by the time Samyuktha, who is in year 9, was ready for university.

A Canterbury University spokesperson said international domestic students made up about 0.3% of the total intake each year, and the university had a liaison team that worked with secondary school pupils to plan their tertiary studies.

“On the rare occasion a student in this position mentions this as a concern, they are provided with scholarship information and given assistance, as with every student that asks about funding.”

The University of Otago also offered scholarships to mitigate the financial impact for international domestic students, but some opted to defer study, a spokesperson said.

Even with scholarship options, tertiary fees were unobtainable for a lot of migrant families, and parents often had to decide whether to stay in New Zealand or return to their home countries, which their children often no longer recognised.

That was the case for Ozzy Omar, who decided to return to Malaysia with her children this year.

Mrs Omar and her husband, Yusoff Deraman, first came to New Zealand five years ago with three of their six children.

She worked as a teacher and a mushroom picker to support her family, while Mr Deraman completed his master’s degree in business administration.

After living in Hamilton for five years, Mr Deraman lost his job due to Covid-19 and the family planned to return to Malaysia.

But after visiting Oamaru in February, they decided to move to the North Otago town, and Mr Deraman got a job at the Alliance Group Pukeuri plant.

Mr Deraman and Mrs Omar’s 19-year-old daughter, Shireen, wanted to go to university, but they could not afford the fees.

She also struggled to secure employment, which many visas required, and would not be able to secure residency by the time she turned 20.

After months of “overwhelming” phone calls with various immigration officers, who provided “conflicting information”, Mrs Omar pulled her 15-year-old son, Danial, and 18-year-old daughter, Sofea, out of their Oamaru schools to return to Malaysia with Shireen.

She wanted to help Shireen settle back in to life in Malaysia and start her early childhood teaching studies, but did not want to leave Danial and Sofea behind.

Parting ways . . . Yusoff Deraman (left) says goodbye to his wife, Ozzy Omar (right), and children (from second left) Danial (15), Sofea (18) and Shireen (20) at Christchurch Airport, as they returned to Malaysia. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Upon arriving in Malaysia, they were shocked by the relaxed public attitude to Covid-19.

The children were having trouble adjusting to a new climate – social and temperate – and relearning Malay.

Before leaving, Mrs Omar visited her children’s schools to see if they could complete their qualifications online.

“The kids do not want to do high school [in Malaysia].”

Even if they wanted to, none were open due to a nationwide lockdown.

“They still want to go back to New Zealand.”

And that was the plan.

Mrs Omar would wait for the borders to reopen, apply for a partnership visa to join Mr Deraman in Oamaru, and bring her youngest children back to New Zealand.

Mrs Omar did not feel as though her family’s situation was fair, and she thought the Government should remove or lessen the barriers faced by migrant children who had New Zealand qualifications, and whose parents paid taxes.

“Why should our kids pay the same as international students? Our children are not international students.”

But the New Zealand government did not see it that way.

Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment Immigration skills and residence policy manager Andrew Craig said it was clearly communicated to people on temporary work visas that dependents were not entitled to domestic tertiary fees.

“While access to education is defined as a right for children up to the age of 18 by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, tertiary study is not compulsory and all tertiary students, domestic and international, are charged fees,” Mr Craig said

This was standard practice in most countries, he said.

“This is not a new policy and there are no plans to create an alternate pathway for temporary visa holders.”

If migrants wanted to pay domestic fees they needed to gain residency, he said.

Although it was too late for Shireen, Mrs Omar hoped changes would be made for other migrant children.

“I know we have so [many] benefits, but our kids need to be considered.”