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Lecturers: It's hard to survive as a student

Thursday 9th July 2015

More students in New Zealand are working long hours and shouldering huge debt - and it’s leaving them exhausted, sick and unable to get the most out of their education, university lecturers say.

“Being a student is hard”, says Victoria University senior lecturer Dr Sandra Grey, “but it shouldn’t be hard to survive.”

Figures show that students’ incomes aren’t keeping up with the basic costs of living in New Zealand and students are working more.

In 2010, a student borrowing living costs of $163 a week and paying the national average rent of $113 for a room, would be left with about $50 for their expenses. This year a student borrowing living costs and renting would have about $37 leftover.

As a lecturer I look out and think what are we doing to our young people?

A tertiary student survey by NZUSA showed most fulltime students work an average of 17 hours a week – up from 15 hours in 2010.

Grey, who is also the president of the Tertiary Education Union, says students are having to spend long hours at their part-time jobs just to stay financially afloat.  

“Most of the students I teach work at least 15 hours a week, and many up to 30 hours. That’s basically a fulltime job on top of a fulltime job of studying.”  

As a result, some of her students don’t finish their assignments on time since they can’t afford missing shifts at work if they want to pay their rent.

“It’s such a huge stress and it has a direct impact on their studies. They just can’t get the best out of their learning.”

Over the 12 years Grey has been lecturing, she says students have faced increasing hardship. “As a lecturer I look out and think what are we doing to our young people?”


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Sylvia Nissen, PhD student at the University of Canterbury, has found “massive inequality” between students at university.

As part of her research, Nissen interviewed 70 students from around the country. While some got lots of support from the parents, others were struggling just to meet their basic needs.  

“For some students living in bigger cities, their loan barely covers their week-to-week expenses. They’re working long, long hours alongside studying to make up the difference and that means that can’t get involved in university life.”

She says it's concerning for future employment prospects since those students miss out on social events, and chances to network. They may also be less attractive to future employers who want well-rounded workers with academic and extracurricular achievement.

“We start seeing patterns of inequality coming out within a generation which I find quite concerning.”

Sylvia Nissen: "For some students living in bigger cities, their loan barely covers their week-to-week expenses."

Photo: Supplied

Nissen has also found that students are increasingly aware of the differences amongst themselves. She was surprised at the number of students who receive high amounts of support from their parents describing themselves as “lucky”.

“To them it’s not a matter of whether they deserve it, it's about chance and the fact that they happen to have parents that a well-off enough to help them. It’s almost a feeling of guilt or embarrassment.”

In contrast, students who are struggling financially, often talked about feeling like an outsider on campus. They show up for a class for an hour then would have to leave to go to work. “They talked a lot about stress and worry. They do their best to push it to the back of their minds, but it’s affects everything they do.”

Most are having to borrow and work nearly every day of the week. They are coming to school really tired and that can impact their ability to study and to learn.

New Zealand Broadcasting School head Tony Simons says that some students are coming to class exhausted from working long hours in their part-time jobs.

“We used to tell our students not get a part-time job because the course is so demanding, but now we don’t because we realise it’s unrealistic to expect most students to survive without some part-time work.”

When he was at university in the late 70s, he was able to save money for the year by stacking timber in the summer break, but now summer work is not enough, he says.

“Most are having to borrow and work nearly every day of the week. They are coming to school really tired and that can impact their ability to study and to learn.”

Some students are getting sick and he suspects it's from a combination of exhaustion and not having enough money to buy nutritious food.

He notes what while many students in his courses are managing well, especially those whose parents can support them, there are some who have to work incredibly hard to manage financially.

“I think that number of students is increasing year on year.”

Dr Elana Taipapaki Curtis, a senior medical lecturer at the University of Auckland, says the bulk of her Maori and Pacific students come from poor communities where families have much higher rates of deprivation.

While the Government expects families to contribute to students’ costs, of many simply cannot, she says. “It’s not a level playing field. Some of our students are not only struggling to put themselves through university, they’re also having to work, study and contribute to their family’s income.”

At a completion ceremony not long ago, a mother of one of our students thanked us for feeding her daughter.

Curtis cautions her students from working long hours because it affects their study, but she understands that for some, part-time jobs are necessary to survive.

“There are students who are visibly tired and falling asleep during class. We’ve also had students who have been living out of their cars which is a big concern for us.”

Curtis’ department also makes food available during peak study periods, and she says it’s a service that some students rely on to get by.

“At a completion ceremony not long ago, a mother of one of our students thanked us for feeding her daughter.

“She said ‘I had no food for her. It was nice knowing that when she came home, she’d been feed because I had another five children to feed.’ It was quite heart-wrenching.”

Curtis doesn’t believe there is enough support for students and is seeing the financial stress taking a toll on mental health with more cases of anxiety, depression and eating disorders among her students.

Tertiary Education minister Steven Joyce declined to comment for this story, but last week in a statement to The Wireless said the student support from the Government is designed to contribute to, but not cover the costs of living while studying.

“This is based on the idea that students and their families should make a contribution to their studies because of the significant private benefit an individual gains from tertiary education,” says Joyce.

Dr Sandra Grey says while that’s true, they also contribute a lot to the productivity and economy of New Zealand after graduating.

“At the end of their degrees, diplomas, and certificates these people will be paid higher wages, paying higher taxes, and giving more back to the country.”



Join the discussion »

“I can definitely relate to elements of this story. However, what is even more perturbing is that a lot of students are slogging it out for several years with no prospect of security or advancement once they've graduated. I think initiatives such as gap years should be pushed harder and be more culturally accepted, particularly for those who are undecided about study and/or career options. Those that are easily influenced by others are often railroaded into tertiary study (with all the advantages and disadvantages that carries) without full consideration being given in regards to whether it's really the best option for an individual.” — Will Warren


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