Opinion - Many students are falling through the cracks during the Covid-19 pandemic and although Labour's rhetoric on education is welcome, it's material action rather than more student debt that is needed now.

"The rationale for that was simple. We know that if we invest in you, and your future, we all benefit. Education is a public good." - Jacinda Ardern

On 14 April the government announced its 'support' for students during the pandemic, which largely amounted to: you can borrow $1000 as a course-related cost. Rather than being offered financial cushioning, students are being told to go into further debt. Let's be clear: textbooks are course-related costs. Fallout from Covid-19 isn't a course-related cost.

A moment has stuck with me since level 4 was announced: while interviewing Aaron Hawkins, mayor of Dunedin, Lisa Owen of RNZ's Checkpoint asked: "The students who are sticking around [...] are they taking it seriously, do you think?" to which Hawkins replied: "… I don't think it's ever useful to try to speak of the student population as one homogenous group, so just like all groups in our society will be taking this more or less seriously, so I would expect they would."

I wanted to cheer Hawkins' pushback against Owen's subtext of: feckless students, gathering en masse to waste toilet paper and lick each other's faces. The picture of hard-partying, irresponsible students, bludging off the tax-payer is oversimplified, unrepresentative, unfair, untrue. Hawkins' pushback reminded us that students are people too.

Students are parents managing cooped-up toddlers and figuring out home-schooling; students are workers, unsure of future employment; students are tenants struggling with rent and homeowners struggling with mortgages; students are at-risk, or are caregivers for the at-risk; students are essential workers; students from overseas suddenly found they could no longer go home; students are also teenagers who sometimes party and make not great decisions, but who are also undergoing huge changes in their lives, and are now doing this during a pandemic.

And many students are falling through the cracks. As Ali Leota from Tauira Pasifika, the Pacific student body, pointed out, part-time students and students who were laid off from casual employment don't fit into either the student support scheme or the wage subsidy scheme.

But students are - as everyone is - deserving of a kind and empathetic response from our government and prime minister. Only offering further debt to some students, while allowing others to fall through the cracks, doesn't feel kind.

I am a postgraduate student, and part of a smallish cohort at Massey University. And even in our cohort, our experiences aren't homogenous. My position generally and in my cohort is privileged, so I have the emotional bandwidth to collate this small portion of other students' experiences.

"There simply is not space, physically or mentally to be productive enough at this level of study where I live, while needing to take into consideration home-schooling of two kids. I am worried that the only options for me are to suspend or extend my study, both of which would leave me without an income." - Student 1

"I am concerned about my health as I am immunocompromised, and about issues of my family and friends so severely impacted in Italy and EU. As a non-resident there is no financial buffer for me. And the last option, which is escape to your home country, was also taken from us for a very uncertain time. I am deeply concerned about my further research."

- Student 2

"In my late 30s, beginning a PhD was a massive decision for me. I knew this might impact my ability to do things like have a child or buy a house. Paying market rent in Wellington, I am financially reliant on my PhD scholarship and part-time work. I also pay university fees. My scholarship will end in December 2020 Covid-19 campus and external lab closures, with roll-on delays, mean I will need to extend my PhD into 2021. Like many students and faculty, I am finding it hard to focus because all my immediate family members are in high-risk categories for Covid-19." - Student 3

" My mother and brother live in the UK and are both in the 'high risk' category, suffering from compromised immune systems and respiratory diseases. I feel torn between being close to my family at this moment (will I ever see them again?) but am also painfully aware that the borders are closed. If I leave I won't be let back into New Zealand for the foreseeable future. I could lose everything: my family, research/scholarship, work and home." - Student 4

The government's announcement hinted towards more: "Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has confirmed many students will be able to borrow $1000 more on their student loan to tide them over until firmer decisions about tertiary education are made." This implies there is something else coming, but when? Reporting from every major news outlet this week shows universities and students are struggling.

As Isabella Lenihan-Ikin wrote: "Education is a public good. This simply means that the benefits of education aren't worn by the students alone, but their whanau, community and nation too. Relatedly, the burden of paying for education can't be worn by the student alone, but it increasingly is."

Students have thought deeply about the challenges we faced this past decade and have powerful contributions to make to Aotearoa's future. Students have ideas and energy for the learning, research, and work that needs to be done. But economic hardship and uncertainty drains that energy.

Labour's rhetoric on education is welcome, but it's material action - not further student debt-that is needed now. Labour can stand by their campaign promise of reinstating the student allowance to postgraduate students. Labour can also enact NZUSA's call for a Universal Education Income, so all students are supported. These actions will materially support the public good of rebuilding Aotearoa in the post-Covid-19 era.


By Gabrielle Amodeo, with contributions from Raewyn Martyn, both of whom are PhD candidates at Massey University.