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May 20, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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The McCourt Report

Many will praise the Government’s fifth budget as balanced and unexpectedly generous; others will decry it for leaving a generation of our most vulnerable behind. The truth, like in most things, is somewhere in the middle. Here I take a brief look at the good, the bad and the disappointing from a student perspective.

First the good. National’s changes to housing could have a positive impact for students in a few areas. The changes will allow non-governmental organisations to benefit from the subsidies Housing Corporation gets for low-income tenants, directly benefiting any students and their families who qualify. But the larger impact will be if there is an increase in the housing stock -which will lead to lower rent prices. The Government is also exploring a rental warrant of fitness. The announcement of this in the Budget is an important next step along the road to lifting the quality of the flats we all live in.

Now the bad. National’s fifth budget brings no new funding to our University. The student-achievement component (SAC) of the funding universities like ours receive hasn’t increased in five years. Despite the welcomed increases in the STEM (science, engineering and mathematics subjects) funding, stagnating core SAC funding has meant cuts in real terms, putting more pressure on our fees and undermining critical teaching and learning programmes. National is short-changing our University, and long-term, that will have an impact on the quality of education, like whether your course has a tutorial or not, or the staff-to-student ratio in your lecture. Let’s hope Budget 2014 begins to address this festering funding shortfall.

Finally, the disappointing. As you might have seen, Budget 2013 also includes a couple of nasty surprises for Student-Allowance recipients. We know for a fact that there are advisers within Government who think a loan is the same as an allowance. You might think you don’t have much in common with a Student-Allowance recipient in their 40s, that the fact they now have to take on about $13,600 in debt and miss out on over $16,000 of Allowance is a consequence of being a student. But you do. We all do.

It might not be immediately obvious, but we are all interdependent and rely on those 40-plus students, often returning or entering uni from the workforce as lifelong learners. It is these students who fill the graduation rows as nurses, midwives, accountants and teachers. It was a pleasure to see many of them graduate last week at Vic’s largest ever graduation. But the problem is that the National-led Government’s policy has the real danger of turning these students off. Unlike a fresh young 18-year-old deciding whether to study, it can be a bit harder for a mature student. You’ve got to balance up the benefits of getting a degree (and maybe those extra cash monies), with the risks of failing, being able to set aside the time between other commitments such as work or the kids, and the real risk of taking on all this debt for no material gain. National’s changes, which strip 40-plus students of 80 weeks of Allowance, could be the tipping point at which these prospective students stay away from places like Victoria, leaving all their extra talent untapped. If that happens, then I would worry for our economy and the future of our skills sector.

Students shouldn’t be pleased with this Budget, but they shouldn’t be too angry either. They should, however, be disappointed. This Government could unlock all the research, innovation and creative power of the tertiary-education sector to help achieve its oft-hailed brighter future. Instead, it has chosen to back cows and extractive mineral industries, to starve our unis of funding and our students of support. This approach is clearly not good for students, but it’s a damn sight worse for New Zealand’s long-term future. We can do better.

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