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Scholarships: The anxious wait for an envelope…

The anxious wait for an envelope…

Anxiously checking the mail for an envelope is familiar to students waiting for exam results. At this time of year however other envelopes are awaited by many school students with just as much anxiety. These letters will tell them whether or not they have been awarded a scholarship for their tertiary education.

The anxiety is most acute for families in low income communities because for many it will make the difference between an expensive, high quality course at a polytech or university or opting for a cheaper, lower quality course with diminished career prospects.

Students from these communities have always been under-represented in the professions but the barriers they face have become wider and higher in recent years. Research by the New Zealand University Students Association has shown decreases in student enrolments at universities from working class areas and has clearly identified tertiary education fees as a major factor.

Many thousands of students are in this extremely difficult situation right now as they study for their external exams.

Some 70,000 New Zealand students will leave school this year facing fees ranging from $3500 to $5000 per student or a total amount of some $300 million. This is not to mention the cost of books, transport and living costs.

This is a great deal of money but it is less than half the profit made by Telecom alone this year - $750 million. (New Zealanders were once all shareholders in Telecom when it was owned on our behalf by the government. Now however their profit goes into private pockets here and overseas rather than as an investment in the emerging generation)

The government’s answer is that any student can borrow the money for study and repay it once they begin earning a reasonable salary. This is not a problem for the wealthy – or the sons and daughters of cabinet ministers – who don’t need to borrow but for middle and low income families it is often a frightening prospect.

No family wants to see their children saddled with enormous debt before they even begin to earn a living and this is especially true for the one third of our children who live in poverty. This appalling statistic underlines the crisis faced when tertiary education costs are considered because these families don’t have the ability to soften the impact of this burden on their children. Add to this the experience in these same communities of seeing the frequently devastating effects on families of borrowing money. Loan sharks abound – preying on the gaps between family income and family expenses.

At the end of the day for many families the prospect of their children borrowing many thousands of dollars to pay for tertiary education is just too scary to contemplate.

Once upon a time a Labour government would have championed these students and their families. No so now. Fully funded tertiary education has been abandoned and the government will not entertain it even as a longer term objective.

In a discussion document released last year it baldly stated that “…universal allowances and zero fees are simply not affordable”

This is a malicious lie. New Zealand is a land of plenty with huge budget surpluses and low taxation on those who can easily afford to pay a great deal more. There need be no hardship to anyone through fully funded tertiary education and a whole lot more besides.

At the end of the day it means some people may not get the third bathroom they want in their holiday home or a fifth overseas trip each year but we will ensure the next generation is supported by the community just as was the current “baby boomer” generation.

It was an unconscionable case of intergenerational theft by which the “baby boomers” – who received their own tertiary education free – put tax cuts in their back pockets instead of investing in the following generation.

Now, in place of political courage and leadership, the government would prefer to burden the new generation rather than confront the greedy elements within its own generation. It would prefer that just a small proportion of students get their fees paid through scholarships while the majority struggle. This is ethically and morally untenable in a society which claims to give everyone a “fair go”.

And so the anxious wait for the envelopes.

The students’ faces tell it all when they find they have gained a scholarship. It’s pure pleasure. But for most students there is no scholarship – just a silent burden they will carry well into their future lives unless our community organises to confront our politicians and demand otherwise.

New Zealand can – and must – do better by the emerging generation.

John Minto National Chairperson

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