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July 7, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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Do students need more money?

Over the course of the weekend, the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) met in Auckland to address student debt. This debt, which currently stands at over $10 billion, is a result of two decades of governmental neglect for tertiary education.

In 1989, then-Minister of Education Phil Goff raised the cost of university fees by almost 1000%, to $1,250 per year. The Labour Government of the day had also considered charging graduates 20% of the cost of their education as a tax once they had graduated (the first version of a student loan scheme), but scrapped the idea after opposition from students used to paying almost nothing for their degrees. A year later, Labour was voted out.

Lockwood Smith, the incoming National Minister of Education, promised to resign within two years if he had not abolished student fees. Well, he didn’t abolish student fees – indeed they continued to soar so that by the end of the ‘nineties most fees had doubled – yet he failed to resign. Smith also introduced the idea of means-testing students against their parents’ wages before giving out student allowances. In July 1991, 4,000 students marched on parliament demanding that he keep his promise (many also asked the government to “bring back Buck”), but the march had no effect, and we now pay for around a quarter of the cost of our education.

The current Labour Government under Helen Clark claims to have done much to reduce the burden of studying. They initially prevented universities from raising fees, then instituted a Fee Maxima, limiting any increases to five per cent per year (except in exceptional circumstances). However, while this allowed Helen Clark to claim (in her opening speech to parliament this year) that Labour had “capped” fees increases, since five per cent is still higher than the rate of inflation, fees continue to rise faster than wages, and tertiary education becomes more and more unaffordable.

Personally, I am happy to contribute a quarter of the cost of my education. But I am not happy that fees continue to increase faster than wages, so it’s good to see that Labour is finally talking about setting the Fee Maxima at the CPI inflation level (approximately 2.6 per cent) for courses already charging the maximum they can. This resolves one of only two major problems with the current level of financial support offered to students – the other is the fact that, even though you can get an unemployment benefit at 18 years of age no matter what your parents earn, your student allowance is means-tested against your parents income until you’re 24. Although many would say the state should not be funding rich kids’ educations, many students are disqualified from receiving an allowance because they have – for instance – a rich step-father who nevertheless refuses to support them.

So the levels of funding given by the government to both students and the universities they attend isn’t quite good enough, but it isn’t particularly dire either. Almost all students can afford to eat well, and those who cannot can always turn up at their students’ associations asking for a food parcel. In Dunedin, I lived comfortable off a $150 mix of allowance and loan each week by eating a lot of baked beans and drinking only Double Brown. Unfortunately, the cost of renting in Wellington makes such a lifestyle impossible for Vic students, who generally have to work part-time, reducing the effort they can devote to their studies.

Yet the situation is nowhere near as dire as NZUSA claim. Last week NZUSA sent me a press release claiming that the ‘average’ student spends more than $200 a week on rent and groceries, $38 a week on transport and $47 a week on bills. Even if the first figure is correct, the transport and bills figures are not. Almost fifty dollars a week on bills? Maybe if you’re running a massive grow-up in your basement. And if some students are spending $38 a week on transport then they clearly have too much money, because many others choose to walk, which costs nothing. Although NZUSA got these results from their legitimate TNS Conversa Income and Expenditure Survey, and they may reflect the cost of studying in Auckland, it’s clear that the 500-odd students they surveyed do not provide an accurate reflection of average students from across the entire nation.

The fact is, most students own cellphones, MP3 players, stereos and computers. We may spend an average $73 a week on groceries, but this includes the cost of luxuries like beer and smokes. The level of support we receive from the government still contains a number of flaws, but we are not poor, and we should not pretend to be. Of course, it’s NZUSA’s job to demand more money for students no matter what, however faking poverty for sympathy will not get us anywhere.

We received 63 reader’s surveys, which is enough to make analysing them interesting to the folk in the Salient office, but not enough to make our survey anything approaching an accurate representation of, well, anything. Three quarters of you want us to keep the current matte paper magazine format. Around half of you want more thoughtful, challenging articles, the other half wanted more funny shit, and almost everyone wanted cartoons and answers to the crossword. So we’ve moved stuff around, putting a bunch of lulz between the news and the serious features, and shifting some of our columns to the middle. As far as what you don’t want to see in the mag, pointless swearing and ‘boring’ things are the most common. Sweet.

So what do you love and hate about Victoria? Crappy expensive food is a major complaint, along with the lack of a real bar with a warm smoking area, the lack of sofas in the library and subsequent lack of nice places to rest, SCS, and the computer set-up here in general. However, a ‘casual attitude’, tuataras, Hunter and Old Government Buildings, the library’s view, Sandy Rankin, ‘Hot Chicks’, free newspapers and the fact that we’re in Wellington, as well as ‘KNOWLEDGE’ are all win.

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Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

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