When Zefei Zhou arrived at Cambridge High School from China in 2001, New Zealand had the largest share of the Chinese student market in the world.
The exchange rate was attractive, the English language entry requirements were low and New Zealand had a good reputation with protective Chinese parents.
"For my parents, safety was a consideration because I am a single child," Zhou said.
"Overall New Zealand was a good option for them: it is an English-speaking country, it is a developed country. New Zealand also had a good tertiary education programme."
But New Zealand is failing to attract others from the lucrative and rapidly expanding Chinese international student market as the education system here struggles to recover from scandals in the early 2000s, says the NZ China Council.
In 2004, 31 per cent share of the Chinese student population studying overseas came to New Zealand. By 2012, that was down to just 4 per cent. There were more than 35,000 Chinese students in New Zealand in 2004.
Last year there were 16,569, according to the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, but the number of Chinese international students worldwide has more than tripled from around 115,000 to 399,000.
International education is valued at an estimated $2.6 billion a year to the New Zealand economy.
New Zealand lost thousands of students after the collapse of two private English-language schools, as well as reports of Chinese students' involvement in prostitution, gambling, drug abuse and gang activity.
Zhou had friends who came to New Zealand to study but were exploited by privately run education programmes looking to profit off the Chinese students.
"They weren't looking after the students well. That had a huge impact on further students coming to New Zealand," he said.
The damage to New Zealand's reputation as a place to study has been difficult to overcome.
"There are certain mistakes you can't make with China," said Pat English, executive director of the New Zealand China Council.
"It really did undermine their confidence. It is starting to recover but at a slower rate off a lower base."
However, the government says the slow rate of recovery is deliberate as it doesn't want to see a rapid explosion in low-quality courses and providers, which is what happened a decade ago, said Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce.
"Education New Zealand has increased its number of staff in China from four to seven, who operate from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. It has a range of marketing initiatives in social media, traditional media and through education fairs," said Joyce who went to China twice last year.
But Joyce acknowledges other countries are doing much better. In Australia, international students contribute more than $16 billion annually to the economy, where one in five tertiary students are from overseas.
This allows them to compete for academic talent New Zealand is missing out on. While there is an economic benefit from having international students here, the big payoff is when they go back home, Joyce said.
"Most become unofficial ambassadors for our country when they return home, and that is crucially important for New Zealand's economic future, particularly in some of our key newer markets like China, Southeast Asia, India," he said.
Zhou has used his Kiwi education to help New Zealand businesses reach China. He completed an MBA from Waikato University in 2012 and now runs his own company with three graduates from the programme.
They help New Zealand food and beverage producers understand the Chinese market, and promote their products in China.
"New Zealand could offer really good opportunities with young Asian entrepreneurs to do business here. Because Kiwis really love to help others, in business terms you can create opportunities by talking to your Kiwi friends," he said.
- © Fairfax NZ News