Deep debt for our future doctors

University of Otago medical students (from left) Nick Jones(23), Jonny Mair (24), Alex Hedley (23) and Mary Furniss (23) are unable to access student loans for their last year of training. Photo by ODT.
University of Otago medical students (from left) Nick Jones(23), Jonny Mair (24), Alex Hedley (23) and Mary Furniss (23) are unable to access student loans for their last year of training. Photo by ODT.

University of Otago medical student Alex Hedley is unsure how he is going to come up with $20,000 to pay for his last year of study.

Mr Hedley is one of about 130 New Zealand medical students who will be forced to pay their final year of doctor training because of a law change introduced by the National Government in 2010 restricting student loan access to seven years of study.

However, Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce says he would not introduce an exception for medical students, adding they could pay for their fees out of the more than $26,000 grant they received in their final year.

Mr Hedley said he, like many others who gained post-graduate entry to medical school, was unsure how he was going to find such a significant amount of cash to pay for his last year of study in 2017, which is when the policy takes effect.

''I would feel very uncomfortable going to my parents and asking for this large sum of money,'' Mr Hedley said.

With banks unwilling to lend against future income, some medical students would likely be forced to take a year off study to save money for their final year, he said.

The grant students received in their final year was used to pay for their three-month overseas elective, meaning it would put them at a disadvantage if they used it to pay for fees.

He welcomed this week's policy announcement from Labour promising to make dental and medical students exempt from the seven-year rule, but was disappointed at the response he had got from the Government.

Mr Hedley had been campaigning ''solidly'' for the past year on behalf of the New Zealand Medical Students' Association, but had come up against a brick wall in the form of Mr Joyce.

''It has been quite frustrating. [He has] been pretty ignorant and just unwilling to comment on it.

''If, when push comes to shove, he is not willing to change the policy, there is going to be a lot of people left out in the cold and it is going to cause quite a lot of disruption for medical training.''

Mr Joyce had suggested students get bank loans, but an Official Information Act application filed by Mr Hedley showed the minister had received advice from banks saying they would not approve such large loans.

He had also suggested students ask family and friends for the cash.

''We don't really see that as acceptable, because people don't necessarily have family and friends to call on for that amount of money.''

Mr Hedley could understand the logic behind the policy as a way of getting students studying other subjects into the workforce quicker.

''That rationale doesn't really apply to us, because, as post-graduate students, we are working through the system as fast as we can.''

The restriction was inconsistent with the university's policy to give 30% of medical school places to post-graduate students, who took at least eight years to complete their study.

Mr Joyce, while sympathetic with the plight of affected medical students, said there were no plans to introduce an exception.

Students could pay for their last year of study from the $26,756 grant they received for their final year of study, he said.

The Government introduced the restriction after a ''blow-out'' in student loan costs during the last Labour government, and if medical students received an exception, other students would also expect one.

The Government would monitor the effect of the policy when it came into force in 2017 and consider changing it, if it had any ''unintended consequences''.

He also noted that medical students would be well paid after graduating.

Otago University declined to say whether it supported the campaign or answer questions on the issue, which disappointed Mr Hedley.

''It's entirely up to [the university whether it supports us] but I feel like they should have an obligation to support their students.''

Fixed like Novopay

Mr Fixit strikes again! Answer to everything. Insert terse or witty one-liner here. Of course doctors, we dont need doctor's here! We can all do it on our smart phones with Dr Google! Let's stop paying Stephen for a year. Better yet let's vote this no-idea-make-it-up-as-you-go-along man out of office. He got his so called education for free, so get lost. [Abridged]


I hear you, but I am not suggesting that GP's fall out of med school and into practice. I am however suggesting that they are contracted to stay working in the country for a period of time to give back where needed. Can't see a problem with that. They did it in Australia for years.

Investing in our own people and getting a good return

Lily213 points out "Graduating medical school is the first step before a lot more study to specialise in any number of areas." So stopping them going overseas wouldn't be in our best interests. However there must be some kind of bonding system that could be worked out so that they could borrow enough to complete their studies, then if necessary defer their "NZ service" part of the contract till they have done the further study to become a GP or psychiatrist or whatever attracts their talents and passion.

The work-bond will stay with them, just like unpaid fines get an offender stopped at the border! Perhaps a few will take off overseas and never come back but I doubt it, there will always be the call of family weddings and, sadly, funerals. Teachers used to be paid while training then had to spend 2 years teaching wherever they were posted. I think it is a good system, far better than burdening people whose skills we need here with so much debt - including commercial interest rates according to the latest brainwave from Wellington - that they have to go where the biggest money is, i.e. overseas, if they ever want to afford to live in better housing than the student flat they rented while they were at Med School.

Toatlly agree

Health and education is our greatest asset and should be free even if we cut out billions of other perks like overseas travel expenses for pollies, grants (not loans) to corporations like Warner Brothers, Comalco, Sky City, etc. It would be fair enough to also indenture doctors, nurses and teachers etc to stay in the country and work where needed for several years to compensate. There are so many successful ways of making things available that don't include austerity it's amazing when you look at it closely. The thing that stops that creativity in its tracks is ideology. It closes minds to the possibilities.

Not a great plan

Errr... maybe let's not imprison our citizens within our borders. Maybe if we treated students with respect and had a good government they would like to stay of their own accord? And I hate to break it to you, but you don't get to graduate and immediately become a GP, so this rural doctors theory doesn't work. Graduating medical school is the first step before a lot more study to specialise in any number of areas.

Keep them here

Here's a soloution, provide them a 100% grant for their final year of post grad study but prohibit them from leaving the country until the entire loan (carried by the taxpayer) is paid off, ensuring the country actually gets the benefits of their tuition in the regional areas that struggle to get and maintain medical appointments. hy are all these people that will get the higher paying jobs allowed to just up sticks and leave once they have their degree? Make them stay and pay it off.

Government won't follow own rules

This reminds me of the time I was advised by a WINZ staff member to use my Living Costs Loan ($1k per academic year intended for textbooks etc) to pay for my essential living costs. I had to tell them that it was not intended for that use. We have to be able to provide Studylink with receipts of how we use it for course-related costs, if requested, so they were directly advising me to lie and commit benefit fraud. Asking students to re-direct funds intended for something else is so outrageous and unfair. Other med students are not expected to use that grant money for fees.

Pigheadedness for progress

Unbelievable! Clearly this is a problem with the law and Mr Joyce is displaying some good old National pigheadedness. Someone in their final year of a six year training programme is a completely different scenario to someone taking on their 3rd degree - which I presume the law was made to prevent - i.e. continual study and clocking up of debt.
Also of all the degrees this is one with a definite job at the end, which contributes to society and will be able to (eventually) pay off the debt. Go back to Mr Joyce's time - I'm sure his BSc in zoology (put that to good use) was free to study, and no doubt he claimed an allowance for living costs.  Now he is expecting people to source their own fees ($20,000) - taking on a bank loan (if they are lucky enough to get one) with interest of 6-7%, or claiming one from their parents. Obviously all medical students parents are rich like Steven Joyce's mates and have a spare $20k lying around... yeah, right. 
The $26,000 allowance that you get in the final year is there because you are working within the hospital (essentially in an apprentiship role) contributing to the daily work. This while paying for rent and food also is expected to pay for the 3 month elective that is compulsory.  Restricting what people can do in this elective because of having to pay their fees out of this "salary" is unfair.  If he is going to use that logic, then as a taxpayer I would prefer that instead of paying for his accommodation allowance, and travel allowance and whatever other allowances he gets, that he pay these expenses out of his own $200,000-plus salary, just like the rest of the country has to do.

Student loans not free money

I am currently an adult student and the help that the government gives makes it possible for me to educate myself. For this I am very grateful but this help mainly comes in the form of loans, not free money. These medical students are being refused loans to finish their studies, not free money. These loans are mostly paid back in a reasonable time - especially for medical students who tend to earn more than, say, art students for example. The difference to the government coffers by refusing to loan money to educate its citizens, even though the vast majority of said loans are repaid, is nothing. The money is repaid! It is
not a gift like when the ministers in power now were in school. Perhaps someone should tell them that the money is now repaid and is a loan not like when they got their free university education. Are these people trying to destroy our country? It sure seems so some times.