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  • Callum Knight

Education Minister Chris Hipkins rules out universal student allowance (again)


Chris Hipkins looking thoroughly uncomfortable when questioned about the state of student poverty in Aotearoa
Tauira are taxpayers too, Minister. [Image: Parliament TV; People's Inquiry into Student Wellbeing 2022]

Education Minister Hon. Chris Hipkins is ruling out a universal student allowance in response to the findings of the People’s Inquiry Into Student Wellbeing 2022.


Hipkins – who, as president of VUWSA in 2001, argued for increased access to student allowances – says the Government will not take action on one of the key recommendations of the People's Inquiry: making student allowances open to all, and lifting allowances to match the cost of living.


Green Party MP Chlöe Swarbrick put the question to the Education Minister in Parliament on August 4, asking whether the Government would make student allowance universal and raise it so that tauira don’t have to choose between having dinner, paying rent, and meeting their study obligations. While Hipkins is concerned that students might be “finding the cost of living is biting,” the Government has not made a commitment to a universal student allowance.


His reasoning? “There are significant financial pressures on the New Zealand taxpayer at the moment and we are not in a position to do that.”


Which is a bit strange, given that the ‘New Zealand taxpayer’ includes tauira.


In an interview with Te Pararē, Swarbrick says the Minister's comment is “pretty galling.”


“There is a really perverse demarcation in most politicians’ minds [...] where students and student issues are seemingly segregated from renters’ issues and workers’ issues, and the issues of those who receive other forms of social or state support like the benefit or otherwise.”


Te Mana Ākonga tumuaki Kyla Campbell-Kamariera agrees.


“I think the fact that the Minister and the government can’t or won’t make the correlation between working students and the ‘New Zealand taxpayer’ is a huge concern. Tauira work on top of studying because of significant financial pressures and the government is constantly declassifying us as if we are not taxpayers too.”


While students qualify for grants such as the Cost of Living or Winter Energy Payments, they’re not nearly substantial enough, Campbell-Kamariera says, “to address the poverty that students are living in all year round.”


“Student poverty,” Swarbrick says, “like all poverty, is not an inevitability. It is a political decision, and different decisions can be made.”

 

The People’s Inquiry, led by the Green Party, Te Mana Ākonga, NZUSA, Tauira Pasifika, and the National Disabled Students’ Association, was released on Monday 18 July.


It’s also supported by a massive list of student associations, including many rōpū for tauira Māori:


A screenshot of a long list of student associations who support the People's Inquiry into Student Wellbeing. The full list is included at the end of the article.

In a joint foreword, NZUSA, Te Mana Ākonga, Tauira Pasifika and the National Disabled Students’ Association say the People’s Inquiry demonstrates just how stark the student poverty situation is, and proves that the student support system is failing Māori, Pasifika, and disabled tauira.


Across the board, it found that tauira in Aotearoa are under significant financial and psychological pressure – and those feeling it most are students with disabilities, and Māori and Pasifika tauira. These groups are most likely to be in a position where they cannot afford food, dental care, clothing, shoes, bills or transport. Māori and Pasifika are also most likely to not be financially supported by their whānau (70% and 75%, respectively).


To afford essentials such as food, rent, power, and transport, 64% of students sacrifice time in class to work so they can meet their basic needs. However, the People’s Inquiry found that tauira working a high number of hours (20–30 hours a week) were more likely to experience high levels of psychological distress than those working less than 10 hours per week.


TMĀ tumuaki Kyla Campbell-Kamariera says the Inquiry is “more than enough legitimate evidence why we need a livable universal student allowance.”


During Question Time, Swarbrick asked Hipkins if he thinks the findings of the People’s Inquiry demonstrate “a barrier-free access to education” – one of the key objectives in the Ministry of Education’s own Tertiary Education Strategy.


Hipkins says that students working while studying has often been the case in the past, but students working and studying “over and above what would be a reasonable number of hours” is concerning.


We asked Swarbrick if she believes the Minister needs to do better to uphold his own Ministry's strategy. Her response was simple: “I do.”


The research from the People's Inquiry, she says, shows that students are “financially and materially far worse off now than they were even five or ten years ago,” let alone when Minister Hipkins and the Honourable Grant Robertson, Minister for Finance, were presidents of those student associations, 20–30 years ago.


Robertson, as president of the Otago University Students' Association in 1996, told The Dominion newspaper that “phasing out tuition fees and returning to universal student allowances would allow a better, more balanced diet [than two-minute noodles].” He argued that “allowances should not be means tested against parental income.” At the time, only 37% of full-time students got any kind of allowance.


As of last year, only 27% do. The 24-year-old cut-off for means-testing against gross parental income remains in place to this day, despite how prominent an issue it was for Robertson at the time.


Chlöe Swarbrick says the lack of action is “a farce.” Labour holds 65 of 120 seats in Parliament. “Nobody is standing in their way. They are the barriers to achieving the things that they once believed in.”

 

When we approached the Minister's office for his perspective, they were unable to provide specific comment from the Minister before deadline. They did, however, refer back to Hipkins' remarks in Question Time. “I have, throughout my working life, continued to be dedicated to ensuring that we get a better deal for students. If you look right the way across the term of this Labour Government and, in fact, the one that came before it, we have continued to seek to remove the financial barriers that students face.”


One of Labour's election promises in 2017 was to reinstate the postgraduate student allowance. They have not. Hipkins said, in a Tertiary Education Union livestream in late 2020, that this “remains an aspiration” and “something that the Labour Party wants to do in time”, but the timetable has changed “because of COVID-19”. In our interview with Swarbrick, she pointed out that during the COVID Emergency Budget in 2020, the Government was preparing to spend tens of billions of dollars. Postgraduate student allowances would cost around $50 million a year.


And an extension to fees-free study? Paused indefinitely, as of 2020.


Hipkins' office also referred us back to his comment in Question Time that, while he has read the People's Inquiry, he hasn't yet “read it from cover to cover.”


Perhaps he should. Then he might fully recognise the urgency of the situation, and the steps that must be taken to properly tautoko struggling tauira. Tauira don’t need the Minister’s concern. They need the Minister’s action.

 

The full list of rōpū supporting the People’s Inquiry Into Student Wellbeing 2022:


Albany Students’ Association (ASA)

Albany Students’ Association (ASA)

Auckland University Students’ Association (AUSA)

AUT Students’ Association (AUTSA)

Lincoln University Students’ Association (LUSA)

Manukau Institute of Technology Student Council (MITSC)

Massey at Distance (M@D)

Massey at Wellington Students’ Association (MAWSA)

Massey University Students’ Association (MUSA)

Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA)

Students’ at UCOL (SAU)

Students’ Association at Wintec (SAWIT)

Student Connection Weltec & Whitireia

Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA)

Younited Students’ Association (EIT)

Unitec Student Council (USC)

University of Canterbury Students’ Association (UCSA)

Te Waiora o Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato me Te Kāhuinga Tumuaki

Te Akatoki

Te Awhioraki

Te Rōpū Māori Manawatahi

Ngāi Tauira

Ngā Tauira Māori

Tītahi ki Tua

Victoria University of Wellington Disabled Students’ Association

Otago Disabled Students’ Association

Disabled Students @ Massey

University of Waikato Disabled Students’ Association

 

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.