Students – liability or investment?

I worked minimum wage jobs from the age of 15 right up until 24, when I went overseas, mainly to earn more money.  This was in spite of graduating at 21 with a conjoint undergraduate BA/BSc and an Honours in Anthropology.  That’s five years of university study in exchange for about $12.50 an hour.  (Fortunately minimum wage has since increased slightly).

I was $2000 in overdraft and had $2500 in credit card debt,  plus a $40,000 student loan.  All while having Inland Revenue deduct student loan repayments from my wages weekly, because I was apparently “over the threshold” for earning capacity.  Is it really a surprise that I went offshore for more cash?

When I came back, I found that I owed $1500 in student loan repayments.  I had taken a “repayment holiday” while overseas, however for some reason the paperwork hadn’t been processed correctly by Inland Revenue.  When I came back I had managed to pay off some of my debt but living in Japan, one of the most expensive places in the world, I still didn’t have any savings to speak of.  No savings, no job, back to university to get another qualification in the hope of doing better for myself.

I found out I could apply to have the money I owed Inland Revenue put back onto my student loan because I wasn’t currently working.  I rang them a number of times trying to have this done (the IRD are not the best at getting back to you).  Eventually someone I spoke to said “Right, now that we’ve heard your sob story, we can…”.  Yes, they really said that to me.

I spent six months looking for work when I got back to New Zealand – work that wasn’t minimum wage, with an employer that didn’t treat me like crap.  All while borrowing more money weekly on my student loan as I had studied for five years and “used up” my lifetime student allowance.  Apparently the government doesn’t want to fund you for more than four years study, presumably because you should have gotten a job with your first degree.  Except that many, like me, still can’t find work.

Eventually, through nothing but luck and perseverance, I did find a part-time job to finance my further studies – the one that I’m in now.  A job in which I get fairly compensated for my time and treated with respect.  Plus I happen to love the work that I do and I feel like I’m making full use of the organisational, communication and writing skills I learned during my undergraduate studies.

The point of this story, is that students have it the hardest of anyone in society today, and I’m thoroughly sick of the New Zealand government acting like we are a liability rather than an investment.  I’m incredibly lucky to have found the job I’m in, and I work my ass off studying, working and volunteering.  For most jobs these days an undergraduate degree is expected and often graduate study required as well.  New grads can’t get jobs because people want them to have experience, but no one will give new grads experience.  Instead we’re forced to study for a number of years, take on a huge burden of debt and graduate multiple times, and still face the prospect of earning minimum wage (or close to it) in unsatisfying jobs.

The government tells us there are plenty of jobs available.  But we also tell our kids that you go to university so you don’t have to work a crappy job for minimum wage.  They’re making student loans harder to get for people, like me, who find they need to return to study in the hope of doing better.  Even worse, they’re making it harder for people who would never be able to finance study at all without a loan.

Studying, especially at graduate level, is one of the hardest things you can choose to do…and you’re paying to be there, not being paid for the work.  Not to mention the part-time or full-time work you do as well to support yourself.  People seem to forget that it’s not a free ride – most students are in the workforce too.  Rather than cut access to borrowing money for an education, wouldn’t it be better to ensure there are decent jobs graduates can get in New Zealand and provide some incentives to pay back that debt?

An education is an investment, it’s bloody hard work on extremely tight finances and students will go wherever that investment pays off the most.  I don’t expect good jobs to magically pop out of nowhere.  But I can’t help but think that cutting access to tertiary education is by far the worst way we can go.  An innovative, robust and skilled workforce is essential to drive our future economy.  Either that, or we can continue to drive everyone who can actually afford tertiary study offshore to find some return on their investment.

I know which situation I’d rather be living in.  Do you?

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One thought on “Students – liability or investment?

  1. I have heard this time and time again from the younger students I met at University, completed a degree and left, gone overseas mostly teaching English, come back still no work, think okay I’ll have to go back to xyz…or “oh heck” get another degree that everyone argues is better than the one I already got – circular motion begins!

    Or find that great job…and then bingo the financial section/business falls apart – “last on, first off” – now what? 😦 pitched out there with everyone else, maybe even the next generation of “hey, just got my degree” …

    do not know what to suggest…being on a scrapheap myself!

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