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Laila Harre Address To Student Loans Summit

Laila Harre Keynote Address To Student Loans Summit
National Library of New Zealand Auditorium
Cnr Aitken and Molesworth St

Good morning.

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all here today, and I thank you all for being part of this important event.

Everyone here today has, in one way or another, been affected by the student loans scheme.

In my view there would be few New Zealanders who intuitively feel that it is right to impose such a significant level of cost on the pursuit of learning. And the fact that for many that cost leads to debt has become an issue of real individual and public concern.

Rich, poor, young and old alike have their personal tales to tell of how the scheme has affected their lives, and those of their family and friends. Today we will focus specifically on the implications for one of these groups – young New Zealanders.

The failure of the architects of fees, means tested allowances and the inevitable effect –debt – to ask about social impacts has been well documented in the recent report by the Auditor General into the operation of the student loans scheme.

This failure must not be repeated in any review work that is done on the scheme, and today we will discuss how to ensure this.

One of the questions I am most frequently asked by young people is what the government is doing about the student loans scheme. While I agree completely that this is a question the government must answer, it's one I would like young people themselves to consider.

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If this is something young New Zealanders feel truly passionate about changing then they are going to have to do more than just ask hard questions of cabinet ministers.

I hope that over the course of the day young people themselves, and the groups representing them, will take the first steps towards an agenda for progressing this issue.

With a clear plan it will be much easier to hold people like me accountable, and I will feel much more able to answer your questions.

In the main, anecdotes are all we have to base our judgements of the student loans scheme on.

Little thought has been given, or research conducted, on the long-term social and economic effects user pays education will have on young New Zealanders.

The most comprehensive research I have seen on the realities and effects of the student loan scheme has come from our national student unions, and I applaud the work they have been doing on this front.

This week, we have been reminded of the effects of the student loan scheme by junior doctors. New junior doctor dissatisfaction with pay and conditions predates the introduction of user pays tertiary education. But we would be naive to believe that a group of professionals will be willing to deduct their tertiary costs – with or without loans – from their future earnings.

One thing I am sure of is that the politics of this issue are not simple. We have grown used to governments denying the obvious despite the fact that it stares them in the face and eventually eats into their popularity. This government will not pretend that things that aren't good enough are good enough. But we also won't pretend things are simple when they are not. The bottom line is that if students aren't going to pay for a substantial portion of their education and associated living costs, who is? And who gets to decide what should be relevant?

It's bitingly ironic that one of the most affected groups have been consulted the least. Young people are among those most affected by this scheme, and these effects are many and far-reaching.

Debt affects access to education, it erodes financial stability, and there is evidence of education costs affecting students' mental health.

I am greatly concerned by the link between student debt and poverty. Poverty limits how fully we can engage in, contribute to, and participate in society.

And when it comes to participating and having an influence on decision-makers, young people are already on the back foot.

One of the main reasons I accepted the invitation to host this summit is that it dovetails with my plans to bolster young people's involvement in decision-making.

Youth participation at all levels of the society they live in, youth empowerment and healthy youth development are inextricably linked. For this reason, promoting and protecting youth participation as of right is something the government will be doing through the Youth Development Strategy Aotearoa.

This is a strategy the Ministry of Youth Affairs will be developing over the next two years. When it is completed New Zealand will have, for the first time ever, a statement of the government's goals for young people, and how we plan to work towards them.

The very reason we are here today is a shining example as to why such a statement is long overdue, and the very real dangers we expose our young people to by not involving them in key decisions.

Any decisions concerning the student loans scheme will have potentially huge ramifications on young people. I hope the issues raised during this summit, and any future work you do on this issue, will be carefully considered by the select committee reviewing the scheme, and in the development of any further student loans policy.

This review is an important first step towards meaningful change.

It will take an objective look the strengths and weaknesses of the current system, future social and economic impacts of student debt, quality issues, and any other matters that arise to do with the resourcing of tertiary education. My colleague and Alliance education spokesperson Dr Liz Gordon is chairing the inquiry, and she will be here after lunch to give you a clearer idea of what this process involves.

So the government has got the ball rolling by making some very important changes to the student loans scheme. These include freezing the interest rate at seven percent, and writing off interest on loans for those studying full time.

Once the education and science select committee has finished its work the government will have a much clearer idea of what its priorities should be, something those of you here today no doubt have your own ideas about. Some of you will have research to back up these ideas. Today is about sharing this information with others, not about designing policy or coming up with a cure-all for the problems created by student debt.

Collectively, we have a lot more groundwork to do if we hope to ever solve this problem. Even within the government we have different approaches to education funding favoured by Labour and the Alliance.

Whatever their political orientation, young New Zealanders need to be part of deciding what kind of tertiary education system they would like to see in place, and then be realistic about what that decision really means.

If free tertiary education is what people want, then they have to think about how that is going to be paid for. If they truly believe the state needs to play a more hands-on role in resourcing tertiary education, they have to accept that this means generating enough revenue to fund it at a decent level or cutting spending elsewhere. They also need to accept that the time and energy they invest in advocating for change may not pay off in their days as students, but it will benefit the young New Zealanders that will one day take their place in society.

The student loans scheme not only impacts most heavily on young people, it affects some more than others.

As well as creating a class of "studying poor", the means testing of student allowances gives young people the message that until they are 25 they are not whole people. In order to accommodate the previous government's tax-cutting frenzy we have redefined childhood beyond any defensible boundary. And we have done so at the expense of one of the least informed and organised sectors of society – the young.

Groups with lower family incomes are more likely to borrow, and our student loan data shows disproportionate uptake by Maori and Pacific Island students. And as will all policies that reward those on high incomes, the student loans scheme costs women more. With women taking on average twice as long as men to repay the debt, what might appear an equal charge becomes a significantly higher one.

Those are a few of my thoughts on young people and the student loans scheme, and now I look forward to hearing yours. I would like to thank all of our speakers for giving us their time today, and everyone in this room for helping create a youth perspective on a problem created by grown ups. Let's hope we have learned our lesson, and will listen a little more closely when it comes to finding the solutions.

Thank you.

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