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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONSocietyJuly 31, 2023

What do students want from a higher education review?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

The government’s announcement of a higher education review is a start. For it to be a success, the student voice needs to be heard, writes Victoria University of Wellington Students Association president Jessica Ye.

A month ago, the government announced an extra $128 million for universities and a higher education review in response to tertiary sector-wide protest against mass staff redundancies and a broken funding model. In a bums-on-seats funding model, falling student numbers have sent tertiary institutions into ill financial health. While a higher education review acknowledges this system failure, it is only the very first step to finding the solution. 

This higher education review has the potential to make things a whole lot worse – for instance, you can look at the perverse outcomes of the recent UK higher education review commissioned by previous prime minister Theresa May. The income threshold for loan repayments was lowered from more than £27,000 to £25,000 and repayment terms for student loans were extended from 30 years after graduation to 40 years, meaning the consequences of student debt would be felt longer and harder.

It all depends on how the problem is defined, what are our goals for higher education in Aotearoa, and whether the review tweaks around the edges or seriously addresses the systemic failures of the funding model. These are values-based, inherently political questions. And given that the review’s terms of reference and scope will be decided post-election, whoever gets into government will determine the future of higher education in Aotearoa. 

So, what do students want from a higher education review? Here’s a non-exhaustive list. 

Defining the problem – why are student numbers dropping? 

The lived experiences of students will tell you that numbers are dropping because studying is unaffordable, and the student loan living costs and allowance scheme fails to meet students’ needs. The expectation of juggling increasing hours of work while studying, to simply pay for the basics – rent, food, bills – has created a trend of more students dropping down to part-time study or dropping out completely due to financial hardship. 

We actually have the statistics that prove this widespread financial hardship, despite refusal from the Ministry of Education, Tertiary Education Commission and other peak bodies to collect this data themselves. The Greens’ tertiary education spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick said: “This intentional ignorance – and the refusal of other parties to lift the lid on the issue at Select Committee – led the Greens and more than 30 student associations across the country to undertake The Peoples’ Inquiry into Student Wellbeing.This demonstrated that two thirds of students regularly cannot afford the necessities; a statistic enabled by a stringent, out-of-touch and overly bureaucratic student allowance scheme. Only 12% of students receive the full student allowance, so most students have to take out loan living costs and go into debt to survive. At the same time, students in a shared flat on average spend 56% of their weekly income on rent.

This review needs to face the evidence and make some courageous recommendations. If it’s going to be meritable, it can’t ignore the problem of student poverty any longer. This review needs to examine the drivers of this trend of dropping student numbers, which students are dropping, against the level of financial support they receive from the student loan living costs and allowance scheme. It needs to compare means-tested and universalised student allowances with a view to understanding what removes the most barriers to access. 

Barrier-free access to higher education 

This should be a key goal of a higher education funding model because it will create a more equitable, participatory and flourishing society. 

The irony of this objective is that it already exists in the current Ministry of Education Tertiary Education Strategy. Rather than tokenise this goal by telling providers to influence this within their institutions, the government needs to live up to its responsibility at a systems level. We want to see post-election, cross-party commitment to using the review to investigate options for reducing the financial barriers to higher education. 

If a higher education review results in a great education system, but only for those who can currently afford it, then the benefits of higher education will not be distributed equally among the population who pays for it. Higher education should not be a privilege afforded by the rich. 

Evolution in higher education 

This review presents an opportunity for tertiary institutions, particularly universities, to evolve the way that they teach and their relationship to the rest of society. Years of chronic government underfunding has meant there have not been sufficient resources for educators to focus on developing high-quality teaching practices. 

Sometimes the content we are taught seems esoteric, or we receive too manyPowerPoint karaoke” style lectures, or feel bleak about our job prospects, and we end up doubting the value of our degrees. Many of us drop out as a result. 

The demand-led competitive model means institutions are incentivised to prioritise winning funding and attracting student numbers, rather than investing in research and teaching, so that institutions can fulfil their important role of nurturing the next generation. This review needs to investigate how it will reverse student disenchantment with higher education, and adequately prepare students not just for workforce but for an ever-changing world. 

Consultation that honours student agency 

Meaningful consultation with students and student unions is essential during the review process. Education is a transformative experience, not a transaction where our agency is reduced to that of a consumer. Having agency in the review looks like being able to define the problems with the funding system and collaboratively develop solutions that address the needs of our student communities.

Finally, a word of caution to political parties contesting for the student vote: we know that higher education frequently loses out to other election priorities because it is viewed as a “nice to have”. But with the resurgence of united students and staff affirming higher education as an indispensable public good, it would be unwise for political parties to deprioritise higher education this election. Just because we’ve got a review does not mean we will quiet down. Expect students to fight for their education.

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