The Government has announced their highly anticipated plans to support tertiary students during the COVID-19 lockdown. This has been met with criticism from students and student advocates who say it doesn’t go far enough.
Education Minister, and breakout star of the 1pm Daily Update, Chris Hipkins recently announced plans to support students following the change in COVID-19 restrictions. The Government has decided on a boost of $20 million into the Hardship Fund for Learners, which Hipkins says will help 15,000 tertiary students.
This additional money will be paid to tertiary providers, including the University of Auckland, who will distribute it however they deem suitable. Hipkins says that the funding can be used to help students facing financial hardship, or technology-related costs when there is not an option for in-person study.
Andrew Lessels, the National President of the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) initially welcomed the announcement online. “This is a massive win for learners, and one that will ease some of the stress caused by lockdown restrictions.” An increase in the Hardship Fund for Learners is one of three asks of Government in the National Student Action Plan on COVID-19, signed by the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations, Te Mana Ākonga, Tauira Pasifika, the National Disabled Students Association and 45 other student organisations across Aotearoa including AUSA.
However, the Government’s student support plan has been criticised by some who say it isn’t good enough. Lessels added that more needs to be done to prevent students falling into hardship in the first place. “Not only do we need to see a UEI (Universal Education Income) implemented to ensure ALL Ākonga are supported, but at the very least, doubling the amount of course related costs so that students have quick access to funds they desperately need.”
Green Party Tertiary Education spokesperson, Chlöe Swarbrick, also voiced that this isn’t good enough. “At the very least, we’d been expecting a doubling of course related costs (despite all of the problems that come with greater debt) which would be available to the 250,000 students, instead of this potential help for a maximum of around 15,000.” Last lockdown, the Government doubled the borrowing allowance to $2000 for course-related costs.
The Green Party have started a petition calling for immediate, direct financial support to be available for all students. Swarbrick says the Green Party have continued to push for a no-strings-attached student support payment, and that a guaranteed minimum income would be the best case scenario. The MP argues this is especially needed for many students who can’t access the wage subsidy scheme. Some post-graduate students also say they have experienced financial hardship during the pandemic, but have received no support from their University.
The party also voiced criticism from students about the process of applying for hardship grants, stating that it is inequitable to access. “Many students report access to these funds requires a substantial amount of time and energy, and that it can feel deeply embarrassing to have to prove just how poor you are to access them.” Currently, support for UoA students includes the student emergency fund, and AUSA hardship grants, which students must meet an eligibility criteria for. This funding support is available to help with living costs but not course related costs.
As well as financial support, the National Student Action Plan on COVID-19 calls for an increase in funding for mental health support for tertiary students and young people during periods of social isolation. UoA has stated that they are aware that the stress and uncertainty of COVID-19 lockdowns and remote learning can impact on students’ mental health. Under Alert Level Four restrictions, students can make an appointment to talk to a mental health adviser on the phone or Zoom.
Swarbrick is calling for students to support the Green Party’s petition, arguing that student poverty, debt and struggle shouldn’t be normalised. “It’s time to remind the Government of the power of a quarter of a million students and demand meaningful student support.”