Auckland International College: A success story turned sad

Journalist Portia Mao reflects on the announced closure of Auckland International College. Mao has interviewed staff and students from the college over the course of her career and takes a look at what this closure means for New Zealand’s international education sector. 

In late October, Auckland International College (AIC) announced it would close down in June 2023. 

In a statement from the school, the closure was put down to the “ongoing uncertainty posed by New Zealand’s Covid-19 pandemic response”.  

It’s sad news for young students who cherished a dream to study at top universities in the world but it’s also sad news for the New Zealand international education sector.  

AIC's announcement of its closure on Facebook.

AIC relies on international students, which account for more than 60 percent of its student population, with many of these students coming from Asia – in 2020 out of the 109 international students, the majority came from Korea, China, Vietnam and Japan.  

The college has attracted students both domestically and internationally from around 14 countries since it was established in 2003 with funding from Japanese education company Oshu Corporation.  

According to the school’s website, AIC is the only school exclusively dedicated to providing the IBDP. In the past, its roll has included hundreds of students per year – many of whom were admitted to nine of the world’s top 10 universities ranked by the Times Educational Supplement (TES) since the first crop of students started graduating in 2006.   

However, due to Covid, the roll has fallen to 136 students across Years 11 to 13. 

Carolyn Solomon, AIC’s first principal, was awarded an MNZM (Member of The New Zealand Order of Merit) for her contributions to New Zealand education in 2016.  

AIC's first principal Carolyn Solomon.

The first time I interviewed Solomon was in 2010 when AIC was housed in a commercial building in Auckland. Solomon arrived as AIC principal in 2003, from a strong educational background: She told me she was principal of Tauranga Girls’ College before working as deputy principal at United World College of South East Asia, a Singapore-based school IBDP in Singapore. She then worked as a founding principal of the first IB school in Thailand - Prem Tinsulanonda International School. 

In 2003, Solomon returned to New Zealand to take the position of principal at AIC. 

By 2011, AIC had students from 10 different countries, making up 70 percent of its student body – 30 percent of students were domestic.  

I was impressed by AIC’s efforts to develop the English skills of their Asian students as many of them came from Asia or Asian backgrounds.  

Over the last decade, I have interviewed 10 AIC graduates – all of whom were second-generation Asian migrants. One such interviewee was Korean-Kiwi student Taehwan Shin, who was accepted to Harvard in 2011. 

Taehwan Shin graduating from AIC.

Shin came to New Zealand from Korea when he was five years old. 

He was admitted to the university after getting full marks in the IBDP exam in 2010 and passing an interview with a Harvard officer where they discussed Auckland’s traffic problems and possible solutions. Only about one in 500 students, or 0.2 percent of those studying IB achieve full marks.  

AIC moved to a beautiful school campus in Blockhouse Bay, West Auckland in 2012 when its student numbers increased to more than 300 from its original 40 students when it was founded in 2003. 

I covered the new campus opening, where PM John Key was invited to the opening ceremony of the new school campus. He gave a speech emphasising the importance of New Zealand international education and said New Zealand could do better in the sector.  

However, current AIC principal Mike Parry announced earlier in November that the school would close its doors for the final time in June 2023. The success story of a private education institute in New Zealand comes to its end. 

in 2012, then-prime minister John Key opened the new AIC campus.

It is not surprising that the international education industry suffered heavily because of the pandemic. The closed borders mean students remain unable to return to the country. 

Jim Ni, the general manager of Byron International Group, an Auckland-based educational consultant company, said he was shocked to hear AIC announce its closure.  

“It was very disappointing that AIC chose to close its door after 18 years since its foundation,” he says.  

“It takes time to build up a good reputation for a private school and AIC does enjoy a very good reputation for its academic excellence.” 

“AIC’s problem lies in its targeting international students and domestic students with the aim for top universities of the world. Therefore, it suffered more than other schools as it does not have a big number of domestic students, which ensures funding from the government.”  

An image of Auckland International College.

Ni was unsure why AIC had decided to close, rather than sell its business to some other international business operators “as it was very difficult to apply for a licence for an independent secondary school in New Zealand, let alone the reputation AIC has.”

He acknowledged the current environment is a tough one for the international education industry in general.  

“Almost all the private English language schools in Auckland have closed. A lot of companies [involved] with international education business also closed down.” 

According to Education New Zealand, around 120,000 international students enrolled a year before the pandemic hit, a number that could take up to a decade to build back to, post-Covid.  

Last month, the Ministry of Education announced that it will allow 1,000 international tertiary students to enter the country next year.  

Ni said the number was far from enough as 400 of 1000 students were pilot trainees and only 600 of them were “normal international students”.  

“Destinations such as America, Australia, Canada and the UK have all opened doors to international students and New Zealand will lose more of the international education market if it keeps closing its border to international students," says Ni.  

According to Education New Zealand, “New Zealand’s $4.9bn international education sector could take a decade to get back to the situation it was in prior to the global health pandemic.” 

The encouraging news is the establishment of the Silver Fern Excellence Initiative (SFEI), the first regional initiative between secondary schools from China and New Zealand. SFEI was initiated by Education Wellington International, the Greater Wellington Secondary Schools Principals Association, and Schengen International Group. It aims to provide an innovative approach for international education in the post-Covid era, fostering international collaboration and cultural exchanges for schools throughout New Zealand and China. 

More than 20 schools in Beijing have signed up for the SFEI during the 2021 China New Zealand Regional Education Forum held on November 10. More than 100 schools from New Zealand and China participated in the Forum online. 

 - Asia Media Centre