Following dream with a student loan

I'm one of the thousands of New Zealanders who attend, or have attended, university as an over-55 "mature student" and incurring a government-funded student loan to pay course fees.

I currently owe $5900, and there is no requirement to pay this money back unless I earn over $22,000 p.a., which I don't.

I incurred my debt while studying music at the University of Otago over the past five years.

If I'm no longer able to get a student loan, there's no chance of my graduating with a degree.

However, I've learned enough to continue following my dream - to compose and write music, including, hopefully, the definitive New Zealand musical, and get that work performed.

Should that result in my making money in my new profession as a writer-composer, I'll certainly repay my student loan.

To taxpayers - and that includes students who pay tax on their allowance - it might seem unfair that they're subsidising the education of mature New Zealanders who may never repay their debt.

But loans owed by oldies, are surely a drop in the bucket compared with the overall student debt of something like $12 billion, a debt that many borrowers may never repay as they've found jobs overseas and don't intend to return to New Zealand to work.

Yet there's a flip side to the argument loans are wasted on older people who are just studying because they've nothing better to do. The boundaries of old age are being pushed further and further; and a healthy, mentally alert senior with an interest that keeps him/her on their toes, is an oldie who stays out of hospital, and has every possibility of gaining skills to help them remain a taxpaying member of the workforce.

Indeed, a tertiary qualification can be a kind of rebirth for those of us who once dreamed of an education, but had to either shelve it, or accept lower paid jobs and careers as we considered we didn't have the intelligence to study further.

I wasn't an over-55 student when I first began university studies in 1986, but not far off. I was 49 and living in the depths of despair after a relationship folded. I could barely go through the motions of doing the freelance copywriting that earned me a living.

In the 1980s, I thought I'd reached the pinnacle of my profession as the creative director of the Wellington office of the advertising agency that handled such famous brands and businesses as, the National Bank, Dunlop, Holden, National Road Safety Campaigns, the Apple and Pear Board, and last but not least, the National Party and the Wellington City Council.

I had lunch with the Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, Michael Fowler, the Mayor of Wellington, and various other bigwigs. It had always been my dream to be the man who pulled the strings as far as political strategy was concerned, and I'd made it, big time.

What I didn't have as a foundation for my ambitions was self-confidence. I'd been a competent and occasionally inspirational copywriter for the agency's Auckland office, and somehow fell into a job that no-one seemed to want; I soon discovered why.

My School Cert hadn't equipped me for the intrigues that wafted around the corridors of power. My fall was swift and complete.

I can't remember what motivated me to enquire about attending Victoria University, but I well remember staring with disbelief at the "A" on an early assignment.

I cried and cried; there must be some mistake! But no, there was no mistake, and over the next three years, it dawned on me: I wasn't such a stupid so-and-so after all.

I passed my papers, getting mostly As in education courses, and B-pluses in the English literature courses. During the second year, I was chosen from many hundred of applicants to be one of the 15 or so students admitted to Bill Manhire's creative writing course. When I graduated in 1988, I got a job with the Department of Education.

Later, I worked for an Area Health Board and completed a master's degree in English literature. Later still, I enrolled in a two-year teacher-training course at an age when most teachers are retiring.

Unfortunately, deafness intervened to thwart that dream.

All my education to that point was either free or I paid the necessary course fees.

Although I may have left getting an education a little late, it gave me goals that certainly enhanced my quality of life. Anyone who thinks his or her life lacks purpose can find it through study.

And anyone with ambition, at whatever age, should not be discriminated against as far as getting a student loan is concerned. How old is 55 nowadays anyway?

What a waste if this untapped talent can't find the means to express itself.

• Ian Williams, BA, MA (Hons), is an Otago Daily Times book reviewer.


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