Bring Back the Postgrad Student Allowance

By Taylor Cunningham (he/him)

Contributor


International student enrolments have fallen since the outbreak of COVID-19 in New Zealand, resulting in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign student fees and nearly 1,000 jobs at tertiary institutions being cut or frozen. This has affected the quality of education, support and services students receive – and postgraduate students are left further out to dry.


Many postgraduate students rely on tutoring jobs at their university because of the convenient and flexible nature of the role – an ideal way for a busy student to support themselves without hurting their studies. However, tutoring positions have declined in both number and the hours available as a result of the decline of international students in 2020 (down 7,000 enrolments from the expected total of 22,000).


Why is this such a big deal for postgrad students in particular?


Well, they receive no financial support during their studies from the government. That means no student allowance (the one you don’t have to pay back). In order to get by, postgrad students must pile on more debt through weekly student loan living costs, or attempt to balance a job (that provides sufficient hours and pay to survive) with their studies, internships, extra-curricular activities and social lives. A strenuous task considering postgrad study itself is challenging and time-consuming.


The lack of financial support also deters would-be postgrad students – such as myself – and especially those of low-income and middle-class backgrounds who would not be able to make ends meet. It doesn’t help that living costs are already high in Auckland, let alone other parts of the country. According to Studylink, for a student to qualify for a student allowance – not to be confused with student loan living costs – they must be studying “an undergraduate course (level 7 or below on the National Qualifications Framework), or a Bachelor degree with honours” full-time. Graduate diplomas are also eligible.


In short, any course that is level 8 or above, such as postgraduate diplomas and masters, are deemed ineligible. People who wish to pursue careers that require these qualifications – such as doctors – and those aiming to advance their career opportunities and education are therefore at a disadvantage, particularly those without access to their parents’ pockets.


It wasn’t always this way: postgrad students received a grant of up to $240 prior to 2013. But the National-led government scrapped the allowance, as then-Tertiary Minister Steven Joyce claimed the new eligibility rules would save $33 million over four years.


The Labour Party criticised this move, claiming it would hurt postgrad students – and the country – and deter those considering furthering their education. Yet they, along with the Green Party and New Zealand First, failed to deliver on their 2017 election campaign promise to restore it.

The entire student allowance system is flawed. Not everyone is treated equally nor has equal opportunity to further their education and careers.

Politicians have been rather quiet on the matter at present, but the call for the postgrad student allowance to be reinstated hasn’t dimmed. Luke Oldfield, the chairperson of Tertiary Education Action Group Aotearoa, and Andrew Lessells, the president of the NZ Union of Students' Associations, both recently told RNZ that the allowance needs to be restored – now more than ever, due to the reduction in tutoring positions.


The entire student allowance system is flawed. Not everyone is treated equally nor has equal opportunity to further their education and careers


For example, according to Studylink’s parental income calculator, a student under 24, living at home, could receive up to $203.11 (after tax) if their parents earn no more than a combined income of $57,500 (before tax). But if this student left home, they could receive up to $240.65 (after tax), as well as an accommodation supplement.


All of this is only applicable if the student doesn’t earn more than around $227 (before tax) a week. Deductions occur beyond this.How about if this student’s parents earned, say, a total of $80,000 (before tax)? They would receive $95.16 (after tax) for living at home; $132.69 (after tax) if they were renting.


Why is this flawed?


First, shouldn’t it be irrelevant how much your parents earn, especially when you aren’t living at home and therefore – in most cases – aren’t reliant on them for financial support?


Second, a mature student (over 24) can receive $278.19 (after tax), plus an accommodation supplement. Or, if they live in a parental home, $233.13 (after tax). But of course, this is if they aren’t studying at a postgrad level.


Where is the logic in this?


The student allowance system needs to be fairer and more balanced. At the very least, all students should receive a minimum allowance, regardless of their parents’ earnings, as well as the reinstatement of a postgrad student allowance.


An overhaul would help entice people to enrol and give students the platform and peace of mind to focus on their studies and pursue opportunities they may not otherwise have the capacity for.


It’s time for the government to step up and make good on its promise. It’s time to invest more in students.