Today’s tertiary students expect to pay a lot for their education and living costs – or more accurately, expect a sizeable student loan at the end of it. The parents of today’s students weren’t faced with anywhere near the same costs when they were at university, and the parents’ parents quite possibly had a free tertiary education. Some courses even paid their students. How times have changed.

But are the increasing high costs deterring young New Zealanders from pursuing higher education? A recent survey carried out by ASG Education Programs New Zealand suggest they are, with 65 per cent of New Zealand respondents indicating that they saw high costs as a barrier to tertiary education.

In the survey, respondents were asked to provide their top three answers to the question ‘What do you consider to be the main reasons why children do not pursue post-secondary education?’ Over 2000 responses were received in total, including just under 200 responses from New Zealand.

While a relatively small sample size, the Kiwi response reflects the findings of other surveys.

Two years ago, a national graduate study commissioned by Universities New Zealand, supported financially by the Tertiary Education Commission and undertaken by the National Centre for Lifecourse Research (NCLR), revealed that one in six final year students were living in significant financial distress.

The New Zealand Union of Student Associations (NZUSA) recently surveyed 5000 students, restating questions from the NCLR survey and found that the situation is even worse, with 44 per cent reporting that that they do not have enough money to meet their basic needs.

The Tertiary Education Union (TEU) has also condemned the high costs of tertiary education, earlier this year launching a Te Kaupapa Whaioranga blueprint document, focused on reducing the cost of education and removing the financial barriers to students’ participation in tertiary education.

However, at first glance, it would seem high costs are not deterring people from tertiary education. The Tertiary Education Enrolments 2013 report showed that 56 per cent of study undertaken by New Zealanders was at degree or postgraduate level in 2013, compared with 48 per cent in 2005.

Yet, closer scrutiny shows an overall drop in tertiary education enrolments from 2012, with the number of public tertiary education enrolments declining, but increasing at private training establishments. It also shows an overall decline in the number of domestic students, while international student enrolments continue to increase.

ASG chief executive John Velegrinis expresses concerns around what high costs are doing to equal opportunity for education.

“Education at all levels must be accessible to everyone. We know that for economies to thrive, people from all socioeconomic groups need to be able to see post secondary education as a realistic option.”

The ASG survey also revealed that 52 per cent perceived lack of support from teachers and family as a barrier to entering post-secondary education.

Pat Lynch, national coordinator of the National Excellence in Teaching (NEiTA) Awards, says a perceived lack of support from teachers can stem from teachers’ expectations of children coming from different backgrounds.

“Teachers can sometimes behave differently toward students according to their socioeconomic or cultural background. The best teachers recognise that they have a huge role to play in breaking down stereotypes and in doing so, encourage children to see themselves as having equal potential,” says Lynch.

“If we compare someone with a tertiary qualification with someone who doesn’t over a 30-year period, the differences in life outcomes are huge. Introducing an education leaving age, when someone has achieved to at least diploma level, is a reasonable and practical way of influencing employability and helping a person achieve a better quality of life.”

Velegrinis agrees.

“Qualifications lead to employability, which leads to greater contribution in society,” he says.

The ASG survey showed that 45 per cent thought a lack of interest was a barrier to post-secondary education. Velegrinis finds this concerning. He says it is “fair enough” if someone has carefully considered post-secondary education and then ruled it out, but he is concerned about those that “haven’t really thought about it”.

Perhaps a lack of interest is linked to high costs; if something is perceived as too expensive, interest is bound to wane. Or perhaps it is linked to a lack of expectation on the part of teachers and families. Or both.

Either way, Velegrinis sees it as ASG’s role to raise the consciousness of the issue.

Part of this is about lobbying policy makers. But he takes a pragmatic view on the costs of higher education and believes that it is important to help families prepare for eventuality of the cost of education.

“Over the last ten years, the cost of living has increased at twice the rate of inflation, so it stands to reason that education costs will also continue to increase,” he says.

Velegrinis says when it comes to financial planning, people tend to think more about superannuation, housing, and even cars than they do about education, which is likely to be the first of these big ticket items to place pressure on the family finances.

In response, ASG, which now has more than 22,500 New Zealand children enrolled, have created support mechanisms for families to help them factor in education from an early stage. The organisation, which is not-for-profit and member-driven, allows parents to make regular contributions to an education benefit fund that helps to offset education fees and other expenses when they arrive.

Velegrinis says the member families come from an array of socio-economic backgrounds – “a mirror of society”. He believes all students, regardless of their status, should be able to pursue higher education.

“The core of our mission is to enable everyone to access quality education.”


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