More than three years after the 2017 election, the issue of postgraduate student allowances has stalled.
In 2013, the National government scrapped student allowances for postgraduate students above Honours level, and since then postgraduate students have been unable to receive student allowance payments.
Prior to the 2017 election, the Labour Party announced a policy to reinstate student allowances for postgraduates. Following the election, those advocating for restoring postgraduate financial support were hopeful that their calls may be answered. However, the newly-elected government did not immediately commit to a start date for the allowances to be reinstated, and ruled it out of being included in their ‘100 Day Plan’. Now in 2021, the Labour government has not yet taken action on the issue, and attributed this inaction to COVID-19.
In a Tertiary Education Union livestream last October, Hipkins said that reinstating postgraduate support “remains an aspiration, the timetable for [this] has changed obviously because of COVID-19, but it is still something that the Labour Party wants to do in time.”
“In the immediate response to COVID-19, our focus really has to be on [keeping] people in work and supporting those who lost their jobs, and that’s where our current support really is going.”
Speaking to Craccum, Green Party MP and Spokesperson for Tertiary Education Chlöe Swarbrick said that in the last term, restoring postgraduate student allowances alongside increasing the student allowance were key issues she pushed to Minister Hipkins.
“I accepted petitions on this basically every single year across those three years, and made it a point on the agenda for literally every single meeting that I had with the Minister. I constantly got told ‘don’t worry, we’re working on it’ and became really gutted that at the end of the term, when obviously COVID-19 came along…that the postgraduate student allowance was completely off the table, and was not a priority,” Swarbrick said. “It had been intended, in my understanding, to come up in that 2020 budget, which instead became the emergency COVID-19 budget.”
Swarbrick highlighted that a number of steps could be taken this term to progress the issue further, such as utilising question time, the Greens’ relationship with the Education Minister and the Education and Workforce Select Committee. However, she believes that there is a need for political organisation from students to place pressure on the government from outside of Parliament.
“The challenge is that there has been a real decline in student organisation and mobilising, particularly for political rights, as subsequent to the last National government’s decimation of student associations by virtue of voluntary membership. So we have to figure out a way to circumvent that, and in order to try and do so from my part I’m doing everything to reach out to all of the student associations.”
Despite inaction on the issue being attributed to COVID-19 by Minister Hipkins, the fact remains that for the first two years of the last term little was done to progress the policy any further. This fact did not go unnoticed; in 2018, the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) launched a petition to the House of Representatives to “recommend to the Government that it keeps its promise and gives us a commitment that the postgraduate allowance will be restored before the 2020 election”. The petition gained over 5,000 signatures.
NZUSA President Andrew Lessells says that they are still actively working to get postgraduate student allowances back. “It is unjust that students can’t access support simply because of their level of study,” Lessells told Craccum. “Postgraduate education is a vital part of Aotearoa’s future and there needs to be financial support to ensure students succeed. Those who go into [postgraduate study] usually already have significant levels of debt and have to borrow living costs on their student loan to survive.”
“The debt postgraduates end up with means that their lives are set back by decades. They can’t afford to start a family and buy a house till their 40s, and some are even dying with debt.”
The University of Auckland Postgraduate Students’ Association echoed Lessels’ sentiment, saying that they are in full support of a restoration of the postgraduate student allowance.
“Overcoming financial barriers is a key part of making university education accessible to all, as acknowledged by the undergraduate student allowance, and students wishing to continue to postgraduate study deserve the same opportunities as their more economically-privileged peers,” say the PGSA.
“Furthermore, postgraduate students are less likely to have financial support from whānau and are more likely than undergraduate students to have extra financial commitments such as children or a mortgage, especially students who are returning for postgraduate study after time away from university. Postgraduate study is also generally more intensive and rigorous than undergraduate study, making it harder to combine with part-time employment without compromising academic quality.”
In 2020, the NZUSA in partnership with Te Mana Ākonga and Tauira Pasifika also launched a campaign to establish a ‘Universal Education Income’. The proposed policy would mean that all students, including postgraduates, have access to a universal student allowance payment. The NZUSA plans to continue pushing for a universal allowance in 2021.
The Green Party and the Māori Party have both signalled support for establishing a universal student allowance, with Swarbrick telling Craccum that reinstating postgraduate allowances is just one step toward the eventual goal of universal financial support for students.
With support from multiple parties in Parliament and a number of student groups, it is clear that the issue of restoring postgraduate allowances is still a priority to many. While Education Minister Chris Hipkins has signalled that reinstating the allowance is still on the cards in the future, it remains to be determined when the issue will move forward.
Illustration by Grace Bella