NZUSA national president Isabella Lenihan-Ikin discusses the challenges posed by COVID-19 on the student community in Aotearoa, and National Student Action Plan on COVID-19 which has been developed in response.

COVID-19 has turned the tertiary education sector on its head, spun it around and hung it out to dry. In this process it has exposed the inequity in the education sector which for years the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) and the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) have challenged.  

Students are finding themselves in desperate situations due to the culmination of insecure housing, employment, income and study. In fact, I couldn’t imagine a more ‘rock-bottom’ situation for students across Aotearoa.

The reasons why the situation has reached ‘rock bottom’ for students is relatively simple. Firstly, students are the only population group in Aotearoa that are expected to borrow to live. Secondly, the amount we are able to receive from the Government each week, either in the form of Living Costs (which is added to Student Loans) or Student Allowance (which students do not have to pay but is only available to a limited number of students) is insufficient to cover weekly essentials like rent, power and food.

As a result, students are required to work an average of 13 hours per week to get by, on top of fulltime study.  However, this work is often precarious; due to the type of employment contracts many students hold, or due to the complete absence of an employment contract in the first place.

As a result of COVID-19, many students have lost their part time or casual jobs as they were ‘let go’ by their employers and therefore unable to receive the Wage Subsidy. Because Study Link payments are insufficient and students are barred from accessing WINZ support, students are left with only a couple of dollars for food, power and expenses after paying rent. The situation is even more dire for part time students, or those with dependents.

From the hundreds of responses that NZUSA has received to our COVID-19 Student Support Survey, unfortunately this is a common story.

So, what are we doing about it and how can you help?

In collaboration with NZUSA, Te Mana Ākonga and Tauira Pasifika, student leaders and representatives from 44 students’ associations, councils and organisations have co-developed the National Student Action Plan on COVID-19. The Plan outlines what students require from the Government and their tertiary provider to continue studying during this time of great uncertainty.

The impetus for the Action Plan arose from the inconsistent responses to COVID-19 across our tertiary institutions and the failure of the Government to support students during this time, given that students have not been able to access any COVID-19 support. The National Student Action Plan on COVID-19 calls on the Government to:

• Implement a Universal Student Allowance, available to all (part-time and full-time) domestic tertiary students.

• Implement a COVID-19 Hardship Fund that can provide financial relief for students facing COVID-19 related costs, including devices and internet which many students do not have access to at home.

• Extend the eligibility of the Winter Energy Package so it is made available to tertiary students. This will keep student flats warm and will prevent students from getting sick this winter.

• Increase the mental health support for tertiary students and young people, in a period where poor mental health is exacerbated by social isolation and uncertainty.

You can read the full National Student Action Plan on COVID-19 here.

One easy way that you can help is by encouraging students to complete this survey. We are working closely with the Ministry of Education to support students during this time, and the information that students share in this survey will help determine the response (and additional student support) provided by the Ministry of Education.