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Pansy Speak - 7 April 2006

Cash back for senior citizens who take out student loans

From time to time, Chinese language websites and talkback radio have heated debates about the merits of senior citizens taking on student loans to learn English. It is undoubtedly good that senior migrants want to learn English to help them integrate better into New Zealand, but serious questions are raised about taking on hefty debt to do this.

As at the 31 December last year, senior students owed more than $85 million, with the number of over-60's taking out a loan doubling in the past year.

English classes for senior migrants can be offered through Labour's much-trumpeted Migrant Settlement Service. The Minister of Immigration has passed the buck on this issue to the Tertiary Education Commission.

Some private education providers are allegedly offering cash refunds to senior citizens who draw down student loans to study with them. Some fees are as high as $9,000 and the cash-backs around $3,000. Senior migrants who have little or no English speaking ability, or knowledge of our system, are being led to take on debt they don't need.

I believe that StudyLink, as the administrator of student loans, has a responsibility to ensure applicants understand exactly what they are taking on when they sign up for a loan. When I asked David Benson-Pope, the Minister responsible for StudyLink, about this, he gave his usual bureaucratic answer that loan conditions are on the contract, and that applicants can seek independent advice or even ring StudyLink if they have any queries.

Well those options fall flat in this case because if migrants are applying to learn English how can they fully understand loan conditions or ring and ask questions? I know of letters of complaint written in Chinese being returned because staff couldn't read or interpret them, and English complaint letters going unanswered. If the borrowers can understand the loan contract they shouldn't be borrowing to learn English!

One elderly woman came to my office in tears about the fact that she had signed a student loan contract and then realised she couldn't repay it. She had been brought up to not incur debt. StudyLink was most unhelpful, and I had to help her to negotiate directly with the institution to withdraw her from the class.

The Tertiary Education Minister goes on and on about improving the quality and integrity of tertiary courses, but he still has a long way to go. This problem has been allowed to escalate because of the indifferent attitude shown by various Ministers and their departments.

It is always difficult for people from ethnic communities to make complaints about scams such as licence fraud, and others, to the authorities, who frequently don't show interest until the matter makes into the public arena - and then entire ethnic groups are subjected to unnecessary backlash.

The Governor-General with the big heart

No doubt many people will have difficulty pronouncing the name of our next Governor-General, Anand Satyanand. So I guess there will be widespread relief at his willingness to be know by his chosen nickname 'Satch'. This is one of many examples of his generous spirit and genuine desire to make others feel comfortable.

His long and distinguished career makes him perfect for this role, and his extensive community work reinforces that. His generosity has been shown time and time again by his presence at Asian community events, where he is content to sit at the back and offer his quiet support as an observer - without behaving like some prima donna politicians who demand speaking time and attention. Satch always has time for such groups and communities.

As a fellow member of the Asia:NZ board, he has always emphasised the importance of communication and interaction between various Asian communities. Satch is always positive and optimistic about putting initiatives in place to celebrate or resolve cultural differences.

I believe that this kind and generous man will make an invaluable contribution to the fabric of New Zealand.

ENDS

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