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  • Pierson Palmer

Learning Paycheck to Paycheck

Gently explained by: Pierson Palmer (he/him)

If you aren’t worrying about money, someone you know at Uni is. The financial pressure of student living is often seen as quintessential to the tertiary experience. It's been that way for a while, and things aren’t improving. Most students will experience the crunch of inflation, and support systems that aren’t responding. A survey by NZUSA found that 72% of us have experienced stress or anxiety due to the rising cost of living. Being a young adult is overwhelming as it is. New responsibilities, experiences, and people fill your first years away from home with highs and lows. It can be easy to let uni fall by the wayside when demands on your time pull you in so many directions. That’s why a few countries, notably our enlightened friends in Scandinavia, have comprehensive financial support systems for those who study. The idea is that, at such a crucial point in one’s life, you should spend as much time as possible learning and preparing yourself for the future. Not scrambling to get rent paid on time. It all sounds very nice, and what’s frustrating is that we had a system like this.

So here was the deal back in the '80s. You got an allowance, then called a bursary, for attending university. That's it. No means testing, no invasive questions about your love life or your family’s financial situation. It was enough to cover your tuition, housing, and living expenses. It didn’t decrease if you had other forms of income. So working just 10 hours a week would leave you rolling in it. Feeling envy welling up inside of you yet? Personally, when I found this out I wanted to flip a table. Take a moment to snap a pencil. It helps.

The once freeing and empowering financial assistance that liberated whole generations of students is long gone. Carved up and whittled down and eventually transformed into Studylink. I won't detail the mess that is Studylink, it would take up 3 pages. For my own sanity I try to visit their goofy, 2000s looking website as infrequently as possible. But statistically, you've likely got a student loan, and even if you get the allowance it has much less buying power.

It's not just financial assistance, students are being squeezed from all directions. Housing is more expensive and of low quality, and many students are forced to work part-time on top of a student loan just to stay afloat. All this is to say, it's fucking hard being a student. If you feel like you're drowning, you're not alone. NZ is in the midst of a youth mental health crisis. Mauri Ora can’t just give us all antipsychotics, Ritalin, and a weighted blanket and call it a day.

What would you do with your time if you didn’t have to worry about money, or spending your precious youth harassing your landlord to deal with the black mould creeping up the wall? How much of that lecture would you take in if your hospo job didn’t leave you knackered? What would your grades look like if you didn’t waste an hour a day commuting from a far-out suburb just to afford rent? How can we be expected to study like those fortunate students of the '80s, who could easily cover their expenses and still have a little spending money?

You're lucky if your study hasn’t suffered in some way. Working while you study can interfere with regular class attendance. Piling shifts on top of lectures leaves you tired, distracted, and scrambling to catch up. Stress screws with your ability to retain information. It leads to health issues and can ruin a period of your life in which you should be discovering who you are, finding new passions, hobbies, and friends. As an interest group, we keep getting the short end of the stick. You should be socialising! You should be learning. That should be your focus. 


At the end of the day, being a smart cookie (yes, you) will only get you so far. You've probably seen headlines asserting the importance of stability, nourishing food, and play, to a child's education. That doesn’t change just because you're all grown up. Your time, in what should be one of the most freeing phases of your life, has been slowly stolen from you.

Whether you like it or not, your academic performance is all tangled up with the rest of your life. (Good luck getting that essay in on time with black mould induced asthma). You need a financially stable, healthy, and balanced life outside the lecture theatre to do the mahi you’re truly capable of. It's all a bit depressing, and given the policies of the current government, seems a little hopeless. Focus on what you can control. Take mental health breaks, try to prioritise yourself where you can. Take advantage of all the help the Uni will give you. Talk to your VUWSA reps. Let the wonderful folk at the student success team look over that essay. The system may be working against you, but Vic is still full of people who want you to succeed.


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