Georgina Hampton explains how the cuts to student
allowances for graduate students are both unfair and damaging
to research in New Zealand.
Meet Anthony Davidson, an MSc student in the University of
Otago's department of marine science. For the past three
years, he has been part of a small team of researchers making
month-long expeditions to the Auckland Islands to study
nationally endangered Southern right whales. He has one more
year to complete his MSc.
He never received a student allowance as he did not meet
eligibility requirements based on his parental income.
Parental income no longer counts once the student is 24, and
as Mr Davidson is now over 24, he was due to receive the
allowance for the first time. He made his study plans on that
basis, and now faces dropping out of university without
completing his Masters because he will be unable to fund his
study and living costs.
The Government's student allowance cuts, announced last year,
have recently come into effect. The cuts mean that, from this
year, no student will qualify for the student allowance after
their fourth year of study, regardless of whether they have
previously received the allowance or not. These cuts, and
their rapid introduction, is short-sighted and does not
consider the positive impact of postgraduate research
students on the research community of New Zealand.
The changes that have come into effect in 2013 will
profoundly change the course of study, or the ability to
live, for a significant number of students, says Erin
Jackson, president of the University of Canterbury Students'
''We know that the impacts will manifest in different ways
for postgraduates; in lower living condition standards, in
increased hours committed to employment (in addition to
study), and, in some cases, abandonment of study or in the
choice to study overseas. All of these consequences are
concerning for the progression of innovation and development
in New Zealand, a field that postgraduate students should be
the leaders in.''
However, Steven Joyce would have us believe that ''New
Zealand has the most generous support system in the world''.
This is not true. In Germany, university only costs students
a minimal amount to attend. In Scandinavia, PhD students are
compensated fairly for their work, earning in excess of
$60,000. A typical PhD scholarship stipend in NZ is $25,000.
A recent BSc (Hons) graduate from the University of Otago has
been offered a fully funded PhD position in the US. Funding
includes a generous living stipend, unlimited research
funding, and flights home to New Zealand each year.
To think cutting allowances in New Zealand won't drive
motivated research students overseas, when support like this
is on offer, is short-sighted. In fact, a survey carried out
by two doctoral students, Amanda Thomas and Bella Duncan, at
Victoria University, indicated up to 40% of current
postgraduate students are thinking of turning their back on
studying in New Zealand.
''It's almost as if the Government wants talented students to
leave,'' one survey respondent said.
These cuts not only affect current postgraduate students, but
future postgraduate students also. There is no doubt the
psychological burden of debt is a barrier to further study,
and to life - young people are delaying having children, and
buying a house because they feel they cannot until they have
paid off their student loan. New Zealand does not pay its
graduates competitively enough on a worldwide scale to make
staying in New Zealand, working, and paying their student
loans back at 12% tax, on top of income tax, an attractive or
Students studying postgraduate degrees have had the rug
pulled out from under them. Funding that was available at the
time of committing to a postgraduate degree has been cut off
with limited warning, leaving students requiring financial
support without access to it. For many students, such as Mr
Davidson, funding availability was a critical factor in their
decision to commit to study. These cuts directly affect
postgraduate students, but they also indirectly affect
researchers. Science funding in New Zealand is critically low
and difficult to acquire.
The Marsden Fund, one of New Zealand's main funding sources,
funded just 87 out of 1113 proposals received in 2012 - a
success rate of 7.7%. In times where external funding is low,
researchers rely on postgraduate students to continue their
work. Prof Warren Tate, 2010 recipient of the Rutherford
Medal, says postgraduate students have been critical for the
success of New Zealand research.
''Highly creative well-trained postgraduate students who, at
minimal cost, are often the engine room of research -
committed, hard-working, and selfless.''
There are many ways the student allowance scheme can be made
more effective - targeting students with a genuine need - and
less costly. Decreasing the 200-week limit on allowance
schemes, changing eligibility requirements so students whose
parents' wealth is tied up assets do not qualify for
allowances they do not need, or incentives for students to
finish courses in a timely manner are just a few examples.
Overall, New Zealand has a positive environment for young
researchers, with PhD programmes designed to give apt
mentoring, supervision, and other non-financial support
students may need. Completing a PhD is not easy, and is not
supposed to be, as evidenced by the small number of
postgraduate students carrying out meaningful research and
contributing positively to New Zealand's research reputation.
The recently introduced cuts will decrease the numbers of
postgraduate students, based solely on who can afford to pay
the high cost of study. As Prof Tate says: ''Any marked
decrease in numbers of postgraduate students has the
potential to significantly compromise contemporary national
And what options are left for Mr Davidson?
''I'll probably return to my job in Australia. The money's
better over there.''
- Georgina Hampton is a PhD student in genetics