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Survey points to uncertain future for Postgraduate students

Media release
Friday 30 November 2012
Survey points to uncertain future for Postgraduate students in 2013

A nationwide student-led survey into the future choices likely to be made by underfunded postgraduate students has shown that up to 40% are thinking of turning their back on postgraduate studies in New Zealand - with one in five respondents looking to take their talent overseas instead.

“With eligibility for a student allowance being stripped away from next year, our leaders seem to have stuck their heads in the sand about the consequences – and that’s why we undertook our own grassroots survey under the name of Keep Our Talent,” says survey organiser Amanda Thomas.

“Overall we had more than 655 unique responses to our qualitative survey, from 202 students and members of the broader community, all of which have been independently analysed (see below).

“We’ve requested a meeting with Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce to discuss the results but have been told his diary is too full. We think this is a real shame because we need him to understand the depth of passion we have about continuing our studies here in New Zealand, and the issues at stake,” says
Amanda, a doctoral student at Victoria University.

“Postgraduate degrees are where a lot of inexpensive, high quality research is done. New Zealand society needs this research to provide innovative solutions to the issues our society is facing. Our survey confirmed the passion for becoming those expert researchers and contributing to society.

“This survey shows that not only is our ability to keep our talented young people in New Zealand under threat, but that those that are staying are facing huge financial stress. Up to 85% of students who took part in the survey said there would be severe personal disadvantages to them as a result of the allowance changes.

“We’re really worried about the impact this will have on students’ health, particularly mental well-being, with effects that could damage and set back a whole generation of talented students. The downstream dumbing down of higher education should concern all New Zealanders”.

ENDS

Student-led survey on student allowance cuts 2012
Keep Our Talent
Released: November 2012
Background
Changes to the student allowance were announced earlier in 2012, with postgraduate students (other than honours) no longer being eligible for student allowance to support them with their living costs. In October and November 2012, an online survey was conducted by two postgraduate students to assess how this change would affect students’ study choices, as well as the impacts to New Zealand society. This report contains the results of this survey.
The survey had over 200 responses, mostly from students, in addition to some concerned academic staff and parents. The questions were open ended and respondents wrote answers in their own words. There were four questions:
• Q1. How this will affect you?
• Q2. How has the student allowance contributed to helping your postgraduate study?
• Q3. How does this affect your future study choices?
• Q4. If you’re not a student we still want to hear from you! Let us know why you think postgraduate study is important for New Zealand.
The main issues that arose were around negative impacts for individual students, and the disadvantages to New Zealand’s innovation and knowledge as a society.
New Zealand’s innovation and knowledge
One of the prominent concerns raised by respondents was the way in which the student allowance cuts would be detrimental to New Zealand’s research, innovation, expertise and knowledge. Both students and non-students identified this as one of the main issues, as responses to various questions.
Of the people that answered the last question, a number of whom were non-students, nearly half emphasised that postgraduate study is important for New Zealand because of the societal benefits of innovation, expertise and knowledge.
One staff member commented that postgraduate students are fundamental to getting aspects of research projects completed:
“…Ensuring postgraduates have access to appropriate support to encourage them to stay on at university is vital to the future of Aotearoa New Zealand…With fewer and fewer scholarships available, and less Government support, fewer students will take up postgrad work, which will have a significant detrimental effect on … research outputs. The Government's actions are short sighted and ill-conceived.”
Students themselves stated that postgraduate study contributed significantly to society, with comments such as:
“I will not be able to do my PhD in New Zealand, meaning I am less likely to do research on a topic that is relevant to New Zealand. I am sure others will be in a similar situation, and this will severely disadvantage New Zealand's knowledge and expertise.”
“The study that I am doing is all for the good of New Zealand. It is NZ that is going to miss out - the work is important, the training is important … and [the cuts] contribute to a general dumbing down of the population.”
“I personally believe that further studies in any degree can enhance our knowledge. As a nation we need to grow up, and keep learning”
Some students cited specific concerns about areas where more expertise was needed in New Zealand, such as psychology, mental health and science.
Decreasing postgraduate student numbers due to the changes, as discussed in the next section, is clearly a threat to such innovation and knowledge.
Individual consequences
“I will not consider any further study”
“It would remove further postgraduate study as an option”
“A delay or maybe not even doing postgrad”
“I will not be able to study in the future at all.”

- Four respondents answering “How does this [the cuts] affect your future study choices?”
The predominant issue that arose as a result of this survey was the consequences for individuals who were expecting or relying on the student allowance in order to undertake postgraduate study.
Of the 185 students that answered the question “Q3. How does this affect your future study choices?” 158 respondents indicated that there would be severe disadvantages to them personally. Seventy-six respondents said that as a result of the cuts, they will not be returning to post-graduate study, or will reconsider their study choices. Regrettably, six respondents stated that they would not be able to complete their current post-graduate studies that they are part-way through, because of these changes.
There were also serious concerns about an increase in debt for individuals, and how the cuts may create a society where only the wealthy are able to afford postgraduate education:
“As a so called middle but really low income family this means it is unlikely my younger daughter will go to uni at all as BA's are often entry level qualifications making ongoing tertiary study for the wealthy only”
“I won’t be able to study if I don't receive the allowance, study shouldn't be a luxury or accessible only for those who have the means (money!) to do it”
Other issues related to individuals included decreased employment opportunities due to barriers to higher education, and threats to emotional wellbeing and living standards caused by financial stress while studying:
“What now? My whole study has revolved around going into post grad and masters, how can I do this now? Am I employable on a degree only?”
“Less money to live on, doesn't mean the cost of living will decrease. It will mean working more hours in a paid job to support my on-going living costs. More hours in paid work mean less hours devoted to study. Less hours in study mean longer taken to complete the workload. More hours on the study and paid workload reduces time spent with family and friends. Less time with family and friends increases the feeling of isolation. An increased sense of isolation can lead to a range of mental health problems, which are exacerbation by stress about financial and academic worries, in addition to the feeling that you are 'letting your children down'. These changes are not good on a financial, academic, social or personal well-being level.”
The brain drain
“It's almost as if the government wants talented students to leave”
The number of responses that mentioned the likelihood of moving overseas indicates that the changes to postgraduate student allowance will contribute to the brain drain, decreasing New Zealand’s knowledge and innovation. Forty respondents indicated that they are considering moving overseas either for post-graduate study with more financial support, or for better employment opportunities. Considering moving overseas was also strongly associated with comments about the damage that student allowance cuts will do to New Zealand’s innovation and knowledge.
Some suggested that there would be more financial support available from overseas academic institutions, which would enable them to continue their postgraduate studies but not in New Zealand:
“I am considering a move to a university in Australia instead as they clearly value the research contribution of postgraduate students more than New Zealand”
“If my country compels me to abandon research under its flag, I see no reason not to abandon my country for one which values my contributions more”
“…I plan to get a scholarship and further my tertiary education overseas. Then I plan to stay abroad, and watch as the government drives away all its brightest residents: those who could have been future leaders.”
Others suggested that given their projected increase in student loans because of the allowance changes, they would consider moving overseas for employment after finishing their studies in order to pay back their loans faster or for better employment opportunities:
“Reinstate the allowance, or assume you've agreed to train me for export, so I can actually pay back the loan. If I leave again, I might not come back.”
“If I did study in New Zealand and rack up significantly more debt I would probably end up going straight to Australia or Europe to work after graduating in order to earn more money than I could earn in New Zealand.”
Summary
The results of this grassroots survey indicate worrying consequences of changes to student allowance accessibility. Respondents indicate detrimental impacts to New Zealand’s innovation and knowledge production. Results also highlight people’s reduced ability to pursue further study, and increased financial and emotional stress. The combination of these factors makes staying in New Zealand less attractive than taking innovative talent overseas.

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