Most former students have horror stories of living in grimy flats, wind whistling through the walls, beat-up furniture and freezing bedrooms. There was mould, mess, with a bit of chaos thrown in. 

Now you’re out of that student stage, you can look back with fondness at being part of a student culture you had to survive. 

But with the cost of living skyrocketing, student benefits remaining static, and a housing shortage exacerbating the accommodation issue – is it time to stop romanticising that era?

A recent survey of wellbeing shows there’s real financial pressure on students, which is forcing them to make serious sacrifices. 

The Greens are demanding more support for students after their survey found two-thirds of respondents were struggling to buy food and other necessities

Today on The Detail podcast, Emile Donovan looks at the financial reality of life for students in Aotearoa, and some initiatives we could realistically introduce that would make a meaningful, long-term difference. 

RNZ reporter Kirsty Frame is not too far removed from student life – back then, she was the co-editor of Salient, Victoria University’s student magazine.

In 2020 as the pandemic hit, she heard horrific stories of students who weren’t coping financially, and what they were doing to get by. 

“I think that was the tipping point for a lot of students,” she says. 

“Things had been bad up to that point, the way in which some people were living, the hustle to get through the week …. and then lockdown happened and students were kicked out of their halls and expected to keep paying, or a lot of students who had casual contracts couldn’t get the support they needed, and were also the first to get laid off.

“They found themselves without an income and no way to find a new job.”

It’s expensive to fund a university education. So many countries, like New Zealand, have introduced student loan schemes where the government fronts the cash for you to get an education, and you pay it back over time. 

That works out in the long-term because, historically, people with university educations have tended to earn more over their lifetimes.

Many courses expect students to study for 40-to-50 hours a week, so in addition to fronting study costs, students can also get assistance with living costs: some students, largely from poorer backgrounds, qualify for a student allowance, which is a maximum of about $280 a week, and which you don’t have to pay back.

However, most students borrow their living costs: again, this is a maximum of $280 per week, but you do have to pay it back. Frame points out it doesn’t go far these days – when average rents in Wellington for example are about $250 – and that’s before paying for power, food, transport and other expenses. 

The idea of increasing and expanding the student allowance has been mooted for a while. 

Labour promised to do it back in 2008, and has made noises about a universal student allowance, fees-free courses, free public transport and rent controls. 

The Greens say the trend of students effectively living in poverty has worsened over the past few decades, which is why they want a universal student income benefit. 

However, the cost of increasing the student allowance to $380 dollars a week and making it available to all university students would cost just over $2.5 billion a year – nearly four times what we spend on student allowances now. 

Some economists argue that simply throwing money at this issue misses the point – that the biggest cost for most university students is housing – and without a massive increase in housing supply for students, any boosts to student allowances would simply end up in the pockets of landlords.

Eric Crampton, chief economist at the NZ Initiative think-tank, says because the Government is subsidising the interest costs of student borrowing, it is up against lending constraints. He believes interest on student loans should be reinstated so students can borrow more while they’re studying. 

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