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It’s Not Just You: StudyLink Phone Waiting Times Triple Over The Last Three Years

By Justin Hu (he/him)

Still waiting on hold about that student loan? Studylink says that you can blame the housing crisis.

The average time that students have spent on hold with Studylink has more than tripled in the last three years, according to figures obtained by Debate, after services changed to meet the demand of more hardship-related calls.

The data, obtained under the Official Information Act, shows that waiting times on calls have risen from an average of around two minutes in 2018 to just under nine minutes in 2019. This trend continued last year with calls averaging at 11 minutes and 36 seconds; excluding February 2020, March 2020 and August 2020.

Callers in March this year waited around 20 minutes while callers in April waited for around 12. Compare this to around eight minutes in April 2019 and two minutes in April 2018. The data obtained also shows that the average number of call centre staff had not risen for the past four years.

The ministry pointed to housing affordability as a driver of increased demand which has led to longer waiting times, in a written response to Debate's original request for information.

“As a result of rising housing costs, clients are increasingly in need of the hardship assistance that can be provided over the phone,” the ministry said.

The Ministry of Social Development’s general manager of call centre services, Geoff Cook, continued by saying that the rise was a result of rising demand for services and an expansion of what callers could get done over the phone.

“We have seen an increase in demand since 2018, both in terms of the numbers of students applying for assistance, as well as the frequency and complexity of information and support being managed by phone."

Before the changes, callers would only be able to access support for student loans, allowances and living costs. Following the changes, students are now able to process special needs grants or get help transferring to or from a benefit, according to the ministry.

Cook continued: “Our Studylink services expanded in 2018 to provide more complete, wrap-around support for students. We’re able to help with financial assistance for food, housing costs, electricity, water tanks, firewood, clothing and much more.”

“More recently we’ve had another surge in Studylink applications, possibly due to Covid 19 economic impacts as more people opt to study due to job uncertainty,” Cook said.

He went on to say that the change made it easier for students by reducing follow-up appointments with Work and Income. But added that Studylink was working on a balancing act between service quality and acceptable waiting times.New Zealand Union of Students' Associations president Andrew Lessells said that the time spent waiting is unacceptable and disproportionately affects vulnerable students.

“While there are more services available to those who wait on hold, those most likely to need support are also those who can’t afford to wait on hold for half an hour,” Lessells said.In February this year, callers had to wait an average of 28 minutes to have their call answered.

This was comparable to the 31 minutes waited by callers in March 2020, when one student had to wait nearly two hours for service.

“When students are studying full-time and working multiple jobs to survive, systems need to be more accessible, not less.

When students are studying full-time and working multiple jobs to survive, systems need to be more accessible, not less.

“We believe that the unaffordability of housing is leading to students reaching out for more support across the board, from Studylink to students’ associations and universities’ hardship funds and advocacy services,” Lessells continued.

Advocacy group Renters United said that overall student hardship has been intensifying as a result of the lack of affordable homes. Speaking for the group, Salene Schloffel-Armstrong and Ruby Colwell said that the situation has become dire.“

The housing crisis is putting additional stress on students resulting in a huge variety of experiences of hardship, whether that is working full time alongside full-time study, difficulty affording living costs due to lack of work, or caring responsibilities etc.

“It is shocking how universal the experience of financial insecurity or substandard housing is for our student population,” the group said in a statement.

The group said students will have to increasingly rely on Studylink services for support.

They added that increased waiting times for all Studylink users were representative of the wide-ranging impacts that housing insecurity would have in New Zealand.


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