:INTERVIEW: Holly Walker - Green MP, on Radio One 91FM’s Rush Hour Postgrad Radio show with Zoe Patterson Ross. (27/6/2012)
ZPR: So, are we talking to Holly Walker?
HW: Yes, hi Zoe how are you?
ZPR: Good, thank you. So what I wanted to ask you about today Holly was about the postgraduate allowances because it was announced back in May that the current government is taking the allowances for postgrad students out of the budget starting next year. I was hoping you might be able to outline for us just what the purpose of the allowances at the moment are?
HW: They way I see it the role of the student allowance is helping to make tertiary study more affordable for students. So in an ideal world – and Green party policy certainly would aim in the long term towards a situation where we return to a free tertiary education system, but we acknowledge that that’s not where we are at the moment and people have to pay significant fees and also of course support themselves and pay their living costs while studying. And so the allowance basically helps people to be able to do that. And it’s really important for lots of reasons. For one thing it helps to encourage people form low income backgrounds into tertiary study, because there’s a lot of research to suggest that the high costs and the implications of taking on a big student loan are very off-putting for people from low income backgrounds who might not be inclined to study if there wasn’t some form of financial support available and so the student allowance is a really important way of helping to get student loan debt down and to encourage people from low income backgrounds into tertiary study.
HW: And also, I think, it’s a reflection of the fact that students are the only group pin society that we routinely expect to borrow money to pay their basic living costs – food, rent, power – and the extent that the student allowance helps some people to do that without having to take on debt I think it’s really important and would love to see us moving towards a situation where it was made universal and more available rather than less.
ZPR: Absolutely, so in saying that what kind of effects do you think taking away the allowance will have? Will it just affect those people from low-income backgrounds? Do you think it would serve to demotivate people who would otherwise pursue postgrad studies?
HW: I think it will, yeah. I think it will have that effect in terms of putting people off postgraduate study because it’s seen as unaffordable and they’d rather go into the workforce if they can and earn money rather than stay on and obtain a higher qualification. That’s actually very counter-intuitive to what the government says they want to do. They’re often talking about up-skilling New Zealanders, supporting people to retraining, investing in innovation and science in particular. In order to do that in any meaningful way requires people to be doing postgraduate study and usually at the PHD level. So to be saying those things on the one hand but on the other hand to be having a policy that’s going to actively make it harder for people do that really seems quite incoherent form a policy perspective.
ZPR: Absolutely, on the show a couple of weeks ago I actually had an accountant talking about how if money were the deciding father in whether a person was to pursue postgraduate studies then they probably shouldn’t be pursing postgrad studies. He very much talked about wanting to see a direct benefit of giving the allowance to students. But form my perspective a lot of the benefits of postgraduate study are perhaps indirect. Helping build critical thinking skills and things like that. So I’m wondering how, in making policy decisions, a government or a political party like the Greens take into account those indirect benefits which investments in education might have.
HW: They key thing that I think it’s important to recognise – and which our tertiary policy does in the sense that we’d like to move back towards a free tertiary education system and a system which promotes universal allowances – is in recognising the public good associated with having a highly educated population. That’s actually a good for the whole society. It does bring economic benefits because it does mean that your workforce is more highly skilled, that you can invest in innovation and science like the government is talking about doing but also that you have a population that are critically engaged and able to participate more fully in society. That is a good to all of us that we think should be recognised in tertiary policy.
HW: But there are also – and you often hear Steven Joyce talking about the fact that because postgraduate students can expect to earn higher incomes after they graduate they should have a problem with losing the allowance or borrowing to fund their living costs because they’re going to earn more when they graduate and will be able to pay off their loan faster and so on. And he’s right in some degree there certainly is a private benefit to higher education and to postgraduate study as well as a public one. But actually when you’re in a situation where you may not be able to afford to continue to study because of the loss of the allowance which I think is a situation many postgraduate students are going to find themselves in, then knowing that you might one day earn a higher income is not that much comfort if you can’t continue to study right how. So there are many immediate and practical affects on students as well as their potential future income to take into consideration.
ZPR: Yeah, the thought of the higher salary in the end is kind of an abstract notion.
HW: Yea, and it’s not a reality for many people. And this related so the other change that’s been announced about increasing the repayment rates for student loans. Because they kick in at a very low income threshold. So at the moment if you earn more than $19,080 a year you have to start paying your student loan back at 10% of your income and that’s about to go up to 12%. So for graduates and people who have completed postgraduate qualifications, who aren’t immediately able to find a job that actually relates to their field of study or gives them a high income, because it’s a reality that for very many graduates you don’t walk into your dream job that pays you $80,000 a year. You can actually be doing the hard yards for quite a long time before you’re in that situation. Then a large percentage of your income is going to be going back onto you student loan very early on. Nineteen thousand dollars as the threshold is less than the full time equivalent of the minimum wage. So if you’re working in retail or hospitality for six months while you look for a job that’s in your field of study then that’s a large chunk of your income that’s going back towards your student loan. And that’s a student loan that’s going to be even higher too because you’ll probably have had to borrow for your living costs since the loss of the allowance. So compounding the impact of all these different policies and looking at what they actually mean for the average graduate or student is actually quite a concerning picture I think.
ZPR: Absolutely, and another point that’s been raised in the media around the idea of the loans is that in fact the amount that you can get from student allowance at the moment is around $60 more than what the average postgrad can borrow on their student loan. I think one of the reasons that I think it’s interesting to talk about these things is because there are a lot of students out there who don’t know exactly what these policy changes mean, but in terms of the practical reality for students next year, with having a less amount that they can even borrow if they do want to take that option of borrowing, that seems to be quite a…
HW: Yeah, this is something I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of because I asked some questions in Parliament about these changes just after they were first announced trying to get to the bottom of exactly this. You know, what is the difference in terms of the absolute weekly amount that you can claim when you switch from a student allowance (which you can access a significantly larger weekly amount than the $172 that you can borrow for living costs) and the answer that I got from Steven Joyce implied that students who found themselves in that situation would be able to access additional accommodation support in the form of the accommodation supplement that would top up their living cost payment to be effectively the same as what they were getting on the student allowance. And so I’ve asked a whole bunch of follow up questions to him in written form to really get to the bottom of that because everything I’ve seen suggested that that is in fact not the case. It may be the difference of something like $60 or $70 a week, which might not sound like a huge amount to Steven Joyce, but when it’s your food budget or a significant part of your weekly living costs – which it is for students – then that can actually make a huge difference. So even if you were to accept the government’s kind of approach or philosophy – that ‘okay, suck it up, borrow a bit more money because you’ll have a higher income at the end of it’ – if you can’t actually even borrow the same amount that you had to live on before then you’re in trouble. And when you’re taking about postgraduate students there are many categories of postgraduate course that are very intensive and have significant requirements for work placement, for example, or practical requirements that actually mean it’s very difficult to have e part time job at the same time as your study. So if you can’t top yourself up with extra income from working then you could find yourself in a situation where you’re significantly worse off every week. And we haven’t had satisfactory answers from the government about those questions to date. I’ll certainly share them with you when they come back, but I remain unconvinced.
ZPR: I think one of the interesting things to know would be if there are going to be exemptions because to me looking at the language that was used in the announcement it seems, from my point of view, that they were kind of letting it go either way. I talked recently to the disability information and support services here at the Uni and they were saying that they’re not quite sure with the language used whether the special cases might include postgraduate students who have some kind of impairment who might need some extra money from the allowance or something. And it also seems in terms of what you’re talking about with students who do clinical placements say in things like clinical psychology or dentistry or something like this, will there be exemptions for some students or not? Can you clear that up? Is that definitely not going to happen, or was it left unanswered?
HW: I can’t clear it up. I suspect the reason that it is unclear is probably because those kinds of specific implications for specific categories of students weren’t given a lot of thought by the government or by the officials in the budget process in drawing up these policy changes. So it’s very good if groups like disability information and support actually bring those examples to the government’s attention in case they simply haven’t thought of it. And it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that was the case. The budget documents themselves are very light on detail in terms of what these exemptions are and how they are going to apply. Hopefully with some advocacy from affected groups, there is possibly a chance to influence exactly how those play out in practice. But in many ways it’s a case of waiting and seeing until more detail emerges through StudyLink or whatever as they work through the implementation of the policy. Sadly it’s often the case that there are these unintended consequences. For example, students with disabilities have faced significantly higher costs and it probably hasn’t even occurred to the policy makers that they might be implicated in this change.
ZPR: Just in terms of the kind of possible implications of taking away the allowance, one of the ideas raised in the media has been that possibly more scholarships might be offered. This as well seems to put more of an onus on universities and maybe private parties to fund those scholarships rather than having funding coming from the government. I wonder if in the policy and decision making process does that kind of get taken into account – having those more private sources such as the scholarships at the University of Otago that have been funded by alumni or something like this? Would that be a possibility?
HW: It may well transpire that that’s the case and if so that’s something to be celebrated I guess in and of itself. It’s great to have extra sources of funding particularly if they’re encouraging people to stay in New Zealand to do postgraduate study. But I’d argue that it shouldn’t take a policy change like this to make that happen; that hopefully those potential partnerships and potential avenues of funding are being pursued in and of themselves. But I think it’s reflective of the philosophy of the current National government which is very keen to divest the state of its responsibilities basically if there’s a chance that private funding could be relied upon to do the same thing. From their perspective it’s an idea outcome if it doesn’t cost the government any money and someone from the private sector steps in to either provide a service or provide funding or whatever it happens to be. And it’s a very concerning approach not just in the student space but in a whole range of others – social service provision and housing – where we have an increasing reliance on private providers which don’t necessarily have the same public good in mind that a government might in forming policy. While it could potentially be a good side-effect of this change that if we do see more scholarships emerging, I would have preferred to see them emerging under the current policy settings rather than as a result of this change.
ZPR: It seems almost like a game of hot potato. They’re kind of trying to shift the responsibility of funding studies onto not only the students themselves but for those lower income students or students from lower income backgrounds, trying to find other scholarships and things to supplement jobs. Seems almost like taking it away from the government onto the private sector.
HW: That’s right. It’s reflective of a general philosophy that this government has of doing that. But also it’s a concerning approach because it’s kind of about picking winners rather than access across the board. And if you do believe, as I do, that at a time of recession that we’re currently experiencing that up-skilling and retraining people is a good way to boost and find pathways to employment and invest in the country’s economic future, then that needs to be something that’s accessible to everybody not only those who are lucky enough to get a scholarship.
ZPR: In terms of the scholarships and things, a lot of what we talk about on the postgrad show is the experience of postgraduate life. So a lot of students talk about how their masters projects or even back to their bachelors degrees haven’t directly led them into the PHD that they’re doing or the job they’ve gotten after that, but people definitely seek experiences in their PHDs. So it’s almost something that I’ve been wondering about whether more people like look to study overseas, knowing that if they’re going to have to compete for scholarships anyway they might end up going overseas.
HW: That’s right, we have a major brain drain problem in New Zealand. At no time is that more apparent than at the moment with record high figures of people leaving to go to Australia. Not only to study obviously but for work as well, but the combination of these changes in the allowances where people will be making decisions about their postgraduate study and whether it’s actually worthwhile them remaining in New Zealand if they can get a scholarship to go overseas instead. But also, after people have finished studying and are looking at their financial prospects and their employment prospects and the prospect of paying off significantly higher rates of their student loans again is a potential incentive I think for people to move overseas after they’ve finished studying as well. There’s a significant trend that if you do move overseas for your postgraduate study then you put down roots in the community wherever you are if you carry on from Masters to PHD for example and follow up with post doctorate work or work experience, the longer you’re away the less chance that you’ll return to New Zealand. We need to be very careful about creating policy that gives people quite big incentives actually to move overseas.