I’m in the exceedingly fortunate position of not worrying about my postgraduate education costs; I have a scholarship that pays my fees and accomodation over the next few years. I won’t have to worry about feeding myself, scraping together my dollars to cover power bills, or shivering in my bedroom because I can’t afford an electric blanket. But for many postgraduate students and prospective postgraduate students, this isn’t the case.
The Student Allowance is part of the Student Loan Scheme, and is a weekly subsidy for living costs that students do not have to pay back. The National government chucked out postgraduate student allowances at the beginning of 2013, providing allowances only to undergraduate students or those studying an Honours degree. According to Stephen Joyce, the Tertiary Education Minister at the time, these changes would save $33 million over four years. But at what cost?
The Labour coalition government is currently deciding whether to reinstate the postgraduate student allowance. We will probably find out their response when the Budget is announced at the end of May, but changes won’t necessarily be enacted until at least the second semester of this year.
Reinstating the postgraduate allowance is necessary for many would-be students around the country. Many of my friends and coworkers have told me that they’re not going to bother with postgrad unless they win a scholarship. To get a scholarship you need to be in the A range, show evidence of sporting achievement and community engagement, and have good references. If you don’t win a scholarship then you need to be shoulder tapped for high-paid, flexible work in your department, or score a departmental grant. Paying your own way is simply far too expensive. Without a postgraduate allowance, first-in-family students and students from impoverished backgrounds are unfairly disadvantaged.
A lack of funding means competition between students for postgraduate study has never been so intense. It’s more strenuous than universities ever wanted it to be. Universities require a B+ average for entry, but an A average for scholarships. University is supposed to be demanding, I understand that. But there’s a growing concern about mental health in New Zealand and we’re beginning to recognise that we need a community solution to the problem. Part of building stronger community means building friendships instead of rivalries. It’s unclear to me how you can adequately support your friends when you’re all vying for the same spot. How can you stand shoulder to shoulder with the person whose head you need to step on to succeed?
Our current, punitive policy reinforces a class divide in postgraduate education and, in turn, our professions. We want our universities and services to stack up against the rest of the world. With dwindling postgraduate students, we can’t compete. If the allowance isn’t reinstated postgraduate students are going to have to increase their borrowing from the government, adding extra weight to the student-loan millstone hanging around their necks. Other students might have to resort to working long, awkward hours to pay the bills, wasting time that would otherwise be used writing their thesis or conducting valuable research.
Consider the effects of abolishing the postgraduate allowance for clinical psychology students. A surge in demand for mental health services over the past couple of years reveals there simply are not enough clinical psychologists available. According to Josh Faulkner and Caroline Greig of the New Zealand College of Clinical Psychology, to meet the minimum registration requirements of a clinical psychologist, one must study for at least a postgraduate degree (a minimum of three years of study), as well as 1500 hours of supervised (frequently unpaid) practice that is usually part of a three-year postgraduate diploma. Without the postgraduate allowance, numerous health professional training programmes, the psychology profession and the academic community at large are severely, negatively impacted.
Students aren’t asking for a postgraduate allowance because they want an easier life. Students don’t want an easier life. Students want the opportunity to work harder to improve themselves. Postgraduate study isn’t for an “easy life”, and it isn’t for slackers and free-riders. Postgraduate study is for serious scholars and young professionals: our future professors, researchers, teachers, and health care professionals. Postgraduate study is for the people who’ve proven their commitment to long hours, late nights, and high achievement.
Labour, Greens, and NZ First all support the postgraduate allowance – what’s the hold-up?
This article was written with the help of Kirio Birks, who is studying a Master of Health Sciences and has a B.A. in Philosophy. He is passionate about student advocacy, social enterprises, and socks.