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May 6, 2013 | by  | in News |
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Green Light for Students

Firstly, could you just give me a basic idea of what the Bill does?

Sure, so this Bill is pretty simple really, it would reinstate the eligibility criteria that existed before this change came into effect for postgraduate students. So it doesn’t mean that they would all automatically get a Student Allowance; they’d still have to meet the eligibility criteria that everybody else does, but being a postgraduate student would no longer disqualify them.

This is a private member’s bill that’s being proposed, not a Government bill, so do you personally have a strong interest in the issue?

Yeah, yeah I do. So yes, it is a private member’s bill in my name so it has been drafted by me. The way that the process works is that any Member of Parliament can put a bill into the private member’s ballot, and the next ballot is likely to be drawn on the 16th of May. So it won’t be debated in the House until it’s pulled out of the ballot, either on the 16th of May or at a later date. But my hope is that it will be drawn so that Parliament gets a chance to debate and vote on the issue again. And yes, I do have a strong personal interest in it, both because I’m the Green Party student spokesperson so obviously it’s very relevant to my portfolio, and I have been a postgraduate student, and I know the financial constraints that postgraduate students face but also the benefits that they are likely to bring to New Zealand, if they are able to stay in New Zealand. I think it’s very short-sighted to make it more difficult.

You’re saying you hope that Parliament will obviously debate it and vote on it. Is there anyone in particular that you hope would support the Bill? How would you see the vote falling?

Realistically, it doesn’t have a high chance of passing because the Government is very unlikely to support it as it would mean a direct change to their policy. But I would hope that they would at least have to articulate good reasons for voting against it if they were in the position of having to do so, particularly now that we’ve got the beginnings of evidence showing that the change has resulted in dropping postgraduate numbers across the country. I think that’s new information that we didn’t have at the time that this change was made, which actually suggests that it’s having very harmful effects. So I would hope that they would reconsider in light of this new information. We’d also talk to all of the parties in Parliament; the Government probably has enough as it has support arrangements with other parties, though they’re not bound to vote with the Government on things like this, so if it was drawn and we were in that position we would certainly be talking to all the parties in case, using the evidence that’s come to light.

You mentioned that obviously the Government wouldn’t necessarily support the Bill, are there any other obstacles that you think that the Bill would face if it did get called up for debate?

I think that would be the main one, simply finding support. It would be great if it passed the First Reading and could be sent to a select committee so that we could look at that evidence in detail and work through the details of the Bill, but we’d have to cross that bridge when we come to it. But I think that there is a value in having it debated even in a First Reading only, which is really that it forces the government to articulate its reasons for continuing this short-sighted policy, which will become harder and harder for them to do if we see the trend towards postgraduate students continue the way that it certainly seems to have started the year.

So you said that you know that students were maybe leaving New Zealand for postgraduate study if Student Allowance wasn’t something that they were able to get, do you think this is indicative of underlying issues with New Zealand’s tertiary education system and issues like ‘brain drain’?

I think it’s certainly contributing to that phenomenon; I’ve had quite a lot of correspondence from students or people who were potential students but who haven’t become students because of this change, including several from people saying they were looking at a large number of options for postgraduate study and have ended up choosing to study overseas because of the lack of financial support that’s available to them in New Zealand. I think that the risk with that is that at postgraduate level, you tend to be studying for quite a long time, especially if you’re doing a Master’s or a PhD. It involves therefore living in the city where you’re studying for a while, putting down roots, and it is quite common for people to then take up postdoctoral fellowships at the same university and so on. Once you leave at that stage of your life, I think the chances of coming to New Zealand are considerably smaller. This means that not only do we lose the benefit of having people study here, we also potentially lose the benefit of having them live here after they’ve graduated.

The original intention of the Student Allowance was specifically to help people who came from a deprived background into undergraduate study. Is it the Green Party position, or your personal position, that older students should get this form of support if that was never the intention of the policy?

The way I interpret the intention of the Student Allowance is to increase access to tertiary education. Yes, that is primarily at the undergraduate level, because that’s where the largest number of students come in to tertiary education, but finances are certainly a barrier to postgraduate study as well. I think what we’re likely to see with this change is that the people most likely to either drop out of their studies partway through or choose not to study at postgraduate level because they have no access to Student Allowance are going to be those people who don’t have independent financial means of their own. For people who have wealthy family support, this isn’t going to be such a barrier for them as they have other ways of supporting themselves, and perhaps confidence that they will be able to repay a bigger student loan at the end of their study because they come from a background where that’s not such a big deal. They are less likely to be put off postgraduate study by the fact that they’ll have to take out larger student loans. Whereas, people from lower-income backgrounds, particularly Māori and Pasifika, are likely to find this more of a barrier to them doing postgraduate study. I think that could introduce a very disturbing trend into our patterns for postgraduate study, that we see only those who have independent financial means or who fit the demographic of a well-off postgraduate student engaging at that level of study. It shouldn’t be an elite pursuit – obviously you have to be able, you have to have done your undergraduate study and achieved at the level necessary to enrol in postgraduate study, but if you’ve met the academic criteria, I don’t think finance should be a barrier. That’s why I think the Student Allowance has increased access at all levels of tertiary education, and to take a whole level out, as this government has done, is quite harmful.

So in terms of Māori and Pasifika students, have you received correspondence particularly from people from those groups saying that they have been discouraged from entering into postgraduate study?

I’ve had a whole range of students contact me, definitely including a number of people in this situation who have Māori and Pasifika backgrounds, or low-income backgrounds, and another one is people who are supporting themselves through postgraduate study. A lot of postgraduate courses tend to be more intensive than undergraduate study, particularly courses which have a practical component. I’m thinking of clinical psychology, for example, which requires people to do a full-time unpaid internship. It’s very difficult to work part-time to support yourself when your course requires you to be working full-time, albeit in an unpaid capacity. For lots of students, taking on a part-time job to cover their costs is not an option at postgraduate level. People who have contacted me tend to be people in that position, or people who have looked at a number of different options and decided to study overseas. I’ve also heard from one or two who were actually midway through a PhD and had to abandon that study. Doing a PhD is a pretty big commitment, and to have to step away from that partway through is pretty tragic, really.

When these changes were made, the Government said that they would save $33 million over four years by cutting postgraduate allowances. Were this bill to pass, where would you see the funding coming from for that?

Up until this academic year, we had that money in the Budget. It was there, and it paid for postgraduate allowances. In some ways it’s not a new cost, it’s one that was there until very recently and, in my view, should never have been removed from the budget. Yes, it would mean reinstating that expenditure of around $33 million over four years. It’s not a huge amount of money in the scheme of government expenditure and also in the scheme of tertiary education and student support. It’s a significant amount, but it’s not a massive saving. I think that philosophically the Green Party looks at these issues through the lens that tertiary education should be affordable and accessible to everybody, and needs a significant level of government support. In my view, it’s justified expenditure.

What’s often discussed in regards to Student Allowances compared to Student Loans for living costs is that for a lot of undergraduate students, their parents certainly don’t fund them fully or even partially, so students who don’t get Student Allowance because of their parents’ incomes aren’t getting money from their parents. Do you think that Student Allowance should be something that is available to everyone or do you think it should still be means-tested in this way?

It’s been Green Party policy for a long time to support a universal student allowance, but what we have said is we couldn’t jump to that immediately. We’d have to introduce that over a period of time. If we’re looking at what we would do if we were in government, I think given what this Government has done, the first thing we would do would be to reinstate postgraduate eligibility and then we would look at progressively reducing the age of eligibility for Student Allowance and increasing the parental-income threshold so as to work towards a universal student allowance. Having said that, our student support policy is currently under review and is likely to be updated before the next election. When it’s finished, that will give more detail as to how to approach that issue. Certainly, our commitment over a number of years has been towards increasing access to Student Allowance at all levels of study.

Is there anything else you wanted to mention about the Bill?

The only other thing I would say, which has been really encouraging, has been the high level of support that we have had since we’ve been talking about this. Earlier in the year, we put up an online submission that people could send to Steven Joyce asking him to reinstate postgraduate allowances. We had a really high level of engagement with that; over 1000 people filled it in in a very short space of time, and we were very encouraged by that. Similarly, since we’ve announced this Bill, I’ve had a lot of correspondence in support. It feels to me like it’s an issue people feel quite strongly about, both people who are directly affected because they are postgraduate students or would have been, but also other people who are out of the tertiary education system but who see the value of investing in postgraduate students. If that public support is anything to go by, I hope the Bill will be well-supported as well, but of course that’s up to the Government.

——

Salient contacted United Future Leader Peter Dunne, Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce, and Labour Tertiary Education Spokesperson Megan Woods for comment on Holly Walker’s private members’ bill.

Megan Woods said that without having seen the Bill, “I can’t see a reason why [Labour] would not support it”, but that Labour’s policy on student allowances has not changed since the 2011 election. The 2011 Party manifesto stated “Labour will resume expanding eligibility to the student allowance scheme”, provided economic conditions improve.

A spokesperson for Steven Joyce reiterated that Government’s opposition to any Bill proposing the changes, citing the “dramatic” increase in Government expenditure on student allowances: “in recent years [spending has increased] from $385 million in 2007/2008 to $620 million in 2010/11—a 62 per cent increase—and this is simply not sustainable”. The spokesperson said National is aiming to focus allowances on students from low-income families and those in the early years of study, the “original intent” of the allowance policy. Joyce’s spokesperson blamed “a number of factors” for the decline in enrolments, stating that more people would move into the workforce than pursue post-graduate study as the economy picks up while mentioning there may be “some people that chose not to participate in post-graduate study if a very generous student support scheme is made slightly less generous”.

Peter Dunne did not respond by the time Salient went to print.

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