Last week, The Opportunities Party was out with Action Station and the New Zealand Union of Students' Association to present a petition to Parliament to reinstate the postgraduate Student Allowance. It was taken away by the National Government in 2013, and during the 2017 election campaign the Labour Party promised to bring it back.
As a party championing research and evidence in policy making, The Opportunities Party knows how important it is to have high-quality research by New Zealanders, for New Zealanders, and postgraduate students are a key part of this.
Student Allowances are also key to keeping our education open to everyone and our educational outcomes equal and across-the-board, not just for some. This is just as important when it comes to postgraduate education as it is for all the education that comes before it. University is already dominated by people from rich families - we don't need to make that worse at post grad level.
One of our core volunteers Jemma Penelope was there to share her story on the steps of Parliament. Here's what she had to say:
I’m here today as a young woman in research, a postgraduate student, and a passionate advocate of our environment and New Zealand’s future.
I’m also from Christchurch, where we’re learning a thing or two about mental health, wellbeing and recovering from trauma.
I returned to post graduate studies a few years ago. Today, I study sustainable economies and economic transformations.
I’m trying to work out what we need to know to be the future country that New Zealanders, and the best of the world wants, and needs, us to be.
But postgraduate study has also helped me heal.
Several years ago I was staring down the barrel of chronic health battles and the prospect of a lifetime of welfare reliance.
As specialist after specialist told me to ‘do less’ and ‘scale back’ as the only way they could see to allow me to manage my symptoms, I became acutely aware how unemployable I now was.
My mind was sharp, my skills and experience relevant, and my sick-leave requirements untenable.
In an effort to find a pathway out of welfare and benefits I decided to use what I had left - my mind. I saw postgraduate study as something I could do that would meaningfully contribute to my society, and remind me I still had something to offer.
To me, it was a pathway to a much healthier mind, and away from the beneficiary system.
It would open up a research or academic career where no matter what my body did, there could be space for me to contribute to New Zealand’s future through research, and lecturing and academic work with young New Zealanders. I need my PhD to do that.
It won’t come as a surprise to everyone her that, yes, a PhD is hard.
It turns out that what’s harder is being a domestic PhD student in New Zealand. It’s bloody lonely.
Today I have the privilege of actually being a rare species - a domestic PhD student at Lincoln University. That in itself was a hollowing notion to realise.
When did being a New Zealander looking for ways to give New Zealand a better future through academic research become such an oddity?
Why was I having to explain this as an outlier to administrative staff?
Why did academic’s eyes light up simply because I was New Zealand-born and thinking about higher research?
It turns out, the only thing harder than being a PhD student in New Zealand, is being a PhD student with a chronic illness, disability, injury or trauma.
When I spoke to the Ministry of Social Development they told me that if I returned to studying, I would be ineligible for the vast majority of support available to me as an ‘unemployed’ person with illness dispensation.
If I was able enough to study, I was able enough for mainstream employment. This seemed illogical and able-ist in the extreme.
When I talked to StudyLink, they told me that the support available to students domestically cuts out once I try to study past Honours level. I asked one such StudyLink advisor how post graduate students were expected to support themselves.
They are expected to work in addition to their studies, or have savings accumulated. This means they expect post graduate students to be superhuman and work 80 hours a week to survive, or be rich.
Bureaucratic storm clouds loomed. I was going to have to go this alone. So I called my mum.
Today I am a PhD student trying to figure out the future for New Zealand because my mum and I are privileged enough that she can support me.
With her mortgage paid off and her amazing partner Graham on board, I am now living at home in my 30’s. We talk about how them helping me is like their ‘social service’, and it’s the only thing that keeps me able to do what I’m doing.
But it’s a dark joke. What about all the other New Zealanders who families simply can’t support their children like mine does?
What would a postgraduate Student Allowance mean to me?
A student allowance would have allowed me to manage my health and wellbeing symptoms and to do a PhD of the highest possible quality, making a full contribution to New Zealand’s research needs.
Instead, I’m fairly seriously behind schedule, and I’m drawing on family resources.
I have to hope it all turns out in the end. Just don’t talk to me about living in my own home or having a family.
But I’m here today to talk about what a Student Allowance means to New Zealanders who aren’t here and aren’t able to access postgraduate study.
The current system is exclusionary. If you need time and accommodation to manage symptoms, medication side-effects, mental health, any form of chronic illness, it’s economically impossible to be a PhD student.
Your mind may be strong, like mine. But you’re shut out of using it at postgraduate level currently.
If you’re unable to manage your health needs or physical limitation and complete a PhD while also working a 40-hour week, then you’re shut out of pursuing a PhD because you can’t afford to live while doing so.
Instead, how about a system where someone recovering from PTSD can use postgraduate study to understand their own recovery, and unravel unknowns for future sufferers?
Or someone battling with cancer able to spend their time in treatment, juggling side effects and specialist appointments using that unique insight into future palliative or regenerative care?
How about someone living with autism or ADHD using their amazing creativity in blue-sky research?
Under all these situations a postgraduate student allowance gives each of these potential students a pathway to contribute to New Zealand’s emerging research, by financially unlocking the feasibility of postgraduate study.
We have options to support someone in prison complete post-graduate study. Yet without a postgraduate student allowance, we don’t have any practical support for someone who carries physical or health limitations to do the same.
Government financial welfare support for people with health care needs is explicitly removed if they choose to study.
Outside of any argument about this being fair or ethical, it’s just plain stifling for New Zealand’s future.
What kind of innovation and social progress are we missing out on by restricting our post graduate study and research to a privileged few - not based on who can think well, but to those who through luck, can afford it?
And what message are we sending to those with illnesses, injury and disability? It is the one I got - that it’s better off if you stay quietly in the welfare system rather than using postgraduate study as a pathway out?
More broadly, by asking postgraduate students to put their PhD and Masters research alongside their working week we’re telling everyone that innovation and research just isn’t a priority.
It’s something that’s a sideline for New Zealand. It’s something you do if you and your family are wealthy, a luxury. Is that what we want to build New Zealand’s future on? Is that what we want to tell our children?
Because I come from Christchurch, I come from a city that is learning a lot about trauma.
We have the humbling challenge of learning how to support people in our community with PTSD, lifelong illness, and injury from earthquakes and massacres.
Our rates of depression, anxiety and mental health disorders are high. Wellbeing can be tough to come by for some in Christchurch.
What might be possible for the people of Christchurch as they rise from these ashes and recover? What if they, too, were able to contribute to solving New Zealand's great research challenges?
What might the rest of New Zealand, and the rest of the world, have to gain by broadening who is able to be part of our research and innovation institutions? This means to those with the unique perspective of illness, jury, disability or trauma - such as those from Christchurch.
While I study, I help run The Opportunities Party because I want to see real change for future New Zealanders so they don’t need to face the same challenges I have.
As a party of evidence-based policy, The Opportunities Party is front and centre of knowing how important it is that New Zealand has the best research and innovation available by New Zealanders, for New Zealanders, to guide us in the directions we want to go.
To me, the postgraduate student allowance is about opportunity. It’s the opportunity to secure the welfare and wellbeing of those who build New Zealand’s research.
It’s opportunity for those want to use unique lived experiences to advance our knowledge and innovation bases to not rely on good fortune as their only opportunity to do so.
What opportunities could New Zealand create if we open up who is able to explore the research to make them possible?
Please, give more than just the luckiest of us the opportunity for postgraduate study, because in the end, this is New Zealand’s opportunity we are reaching for.