The door to tertiary education – open to whom?

June 2014


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The new reports on tertiary education enrolments and earnings need to be considered in the context of the high costs associated with being a student.

The release of two new reports shows that the proportion of New Zealanders studying higher qualifications is slowly increasing, and those with a qualification at degree or postgraduate level are likely to achieve greater earnings. But what about the high costs involved to get there? Tertiary student unions argue that the high costs of tuition and living are shutting people out of higher education and creating inequality in tertiary education.

One of the reports, Tertiary Education Enrolments 2013, showed that 56 per cent of study undertaken by New Zealanders was at degree or postgraduate level in 2013, compared with 48 per cent in 2005.

The enrolments report was released alongside an earnings report, What Young Graduates Earn When They Leave Study which revealed that people with a bachelor’s degree or higher qualification on average earn 62 per cent more than those without a qualification.

“This updated research shows a large jump in earnings between those who hold a degree compared to those with a lower level qualification, and the return for those who study in some particular fields of study is greater,” says Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Minister Steven Joyce, alluding to the fact that graduates of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects currently tend to earn more.

However, a closer look at the enrolments report shows an overall drop in tertiary education enrolments from 2012, with the number of public tertiary education enrolments declining, but increasing at private training establishments. It also shows an overall decline in the number of domestic students, while international student enrolments continue to increase.

These findings ask some uncomfortable questions about why this is happening.

Tertiary Education Union (TEU) national president Lesley Francey says current education policy is directly transferring both students and public money out of high quality public institutions, and into private companies.

“Private not-for-profit tertiary education providers have their place supporting the public education system. But other private companies should not be allowed to strip students and public funding from the universities, polytechnics, and wānanga.”

The TEU also says the cost of being a student is too high and making tertiary education inaccessible for many New Zealanders.

Demands to reduce the cost of education and remove the financial barriers to students participating form the basis for TEU’s latest Te Kaupapa Whaioranga blueprint document, launched earlier this year.

“Tertiary education is not primarily a public subsidy and skills factory for big business. It is about providing opportunities and hope for students and their local communities. If debt prevents students getting an education then our public education system is failing and our country is losing out,” says Francey.

“The best way to demonstrate that we are committing our education system to the wellbeing of students first and foremost, rather than corporations, is not to saddle them with huge debts while they study.”

Indeed, student debts are problematic for many, particularly in light of hefty tuition fees.

As part of its 2014 Budget strategy, the Government has announced an $83.3 million dollar subsidy for science, agriculture, and some health science courses; even so, there are still calls to make tertiary study more affordable for students.

Many students leave tertiary education with sizeable student debt. While this in itself is a deterrent to further study, New Zealand’s student loan repayment scheme has also been criticised for being too severe.

The New Zealand Union of Students’ Association’s president, Daniel Haines, describes the student loan scheme, in which a domestic student earning over $19,084 must make compulsory 12 cents in the dollar repayments on their student loan, as “one of the most regressive in the world”.

“By freezing the repayment rate in New Zealand at a level below full-time minimum wage, payments are imposed on those people who have the least ability to pay”, said Haines.

Haines says student debt in New Zealand continues to grow and puts this down to the Government’s cuts to student support. The student allowance has only experienced meagre increases over the past 15 years.

“Money cut from student support disproportionately affects postgraduate students who had their entitlement to receive allowances removed in 2012, students over 40 who have had their allowances restricted to 120 weeks, and students over 55 who have had all allowance eligibility completely removed,” says Haines.

Indeed, the enrolments report shows that enrolments by older students fell at every qualification level from 2012 to 2013, with continued strong decreases in the number of enrolments in non-degree qualifications.

Haines believes we are heading towards a society of those who can afford to access higher learning, and those who cannot.

“Our public institutions should be open to those who have the ability to learn, not simply those with the ability to pay.”

Haines also points to disparities between assistance for student housing costs and that for all other low income New Zealanders. The Accommodation Supplement entitles people to support of up to $145 per week in certain parts of Auckland, while housing support for students is capped at a maximum of $40 per week.

“Where’s the incentive to move from a benefit into study, or from a low-paid job into having a qualification that could potentially move someone out of poverty, if that choice is completely unaffordable?” 

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