The National Party has voted: something needs to be done to improve students’ welfare. A new consensus has been formed, which may change the lives of struggling students across New Zealand, writes Jack Close
Three months ago, I launched a lobby group named the Aotearoa Students’ Alliance to advocate for change to student welfare law. We went hunting for accountability for students’ welfare, and an increase in weekly loan living costs payments.
Why are we so frustrated? Rent price inflation means a $140 room in 2012 now costs $44 more, while the amount the government lends to students each week had increased by only $6 over the same period. In Wellington, for example, an average student room now costs $202.50 a week, while the government will only let students borrow $178.81 to put towards it. Students can’t even pay for power or for food.
Within a few months, we featured on One News, Te Karere and the New Zealand Herald – and found ourselves in the offices of Gareth Hughes, Tracey Martin, Chris Hipkins, and Marama Fox, political parties’ spokespeople for tertiary education.
Slowly, meeting by meeting, each party supported the issues we raised. The Greens, New Zealand First, Labour, and Māori Party renewed their support for improvements to student welfare, including an increase in the weekly loan living costs payments.
We broke new ground when David Seymour, leader of ACT, the party responsible for a hard-line reputation toward public finances and a strong stance against unnecessary spending, pledged his support for increased loan living costs.
Quickly it became clear that supporting adequate support for living was not a partisan issue – parties from across the political spectrum agreed that $178.81 a week, not even enough to cover rent in our biggest cities, is an unacceptable and incoherent level of support.
But one behemoth stood in the Students’ Alliance’s way – the National Party, and its horde of yeah-but-nah cabinet ministers.
In a meeting last week with the man himself, Paul Goldsmith, Minister of Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment, we raised the concerns of students that loan living costs payments barely cover rent, let alone power or food. True to form, he stood by his philosophy that students should “make a contribution themselves”, ignoring the fact that increased living costs payments do exactly that, when students return them to the government as part of their loan repayments.
With all the media attention on the fallout from the Todd Barclay scandal, it went largely unnoticed, but in a twist of fate, Goldsmith’s own party voted unanimously in favour of increased living costs payments at its conference in Wellington on Saturday.
A remit proposed by the Young Nats, “That the National Party support the increase of the cap of student living costs loans proposed to meet increased cost of living” was met with a resounding approval from the party’s delegates, indicating a mandate from the party wing – and a mandate across New Zealand’s political spectrum to act on students’ welfare.
That means that ACT, Greens, Labour, Māori, New Zealand First, and now National’s own party wing now support an increase in loan living costs payments. It isn’t often that such a wide consensus across political parties exists on policy issues. Evidently, it is a worthy cause. At a small cost, politicians can make a world of difference in students’ lives.
With such unanimous support, it would be foolish for the minister to continue his campaign against the wellbeing of students. Not only should the minister act, but he should act immediately.
Anything less would be a disastrous miscarriage of politics.
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