18 Jul 2022

Tertiary students spend more than half of income on rent - survey

3:21 pm on 18 July 2022

The Green Party is urging rent controls and more support after a survey found two thirds of university students regularly struggle to buy food and other necessities.

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick holds up a cup of instant noodles as an example of what students can afford to eat once they've paid for living costs

File photo of Green Party tertiary education spokesperson Chloe Swarbrick pictured with a cup of noodles. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The People's Inquiry into Student Wellbeing is a self-selecting survey of more than 4500 students, commissioned by the Green Party, the national student associations union (NZUSA) and the Māori (Te Mana Ākonga), Pacific (Tauira Pasifika) and disabled students (National Disabled Students' Association) associations.

It found:

  • On average, students living in a shared flat put 54 percent of their income towards rent
  • About two thirds regularly did not have enough money to buy food, clothing, pay bills, get health care, or other basics. Disabled, Māori or Pasifika students were most likely to be in that position.
  • 58 percent of students felt supported by their education provider's response to Covid-19
  • 69 percent reported poorer mental wellbeing during the pandemic and said it negatively impacted their studies
  • Two thirds reported being unable to pay for transport or vehicle costs, with 91 percent saying they would use public transport more if it were free
  • 14 percent of students living in a shared flat said the housing did not meet their needs due to cold, damp, mould, crowding, noise, or lack of maintenance and poor furnishings
  • About three quarters were uncomfortable raising concerns with their landlord or the tenancy tribunal for fear of rent increases or being forced out
  • 60 percent of students are not supported financially by parents, including those with an income above the student allowance entitlement limit
  • 64 percent of students sacrifice time in class to work so they can afford to live
  • 91 percent supported rent controls, 82 percent supported a rental warrant of fitness

In a statement, the Green Party's tertiary education spokesperson Chloe Swarbrick said political decisions had entrenched and normalised student poverty over the past few decades.

She said education was a public good that benefited all, but students were struggling financially. She called for the government to accept the survey's recommendation for a universally accessible student allowance not inhibited by part-time job income that could meet the cost of living.

"The minority of students who today can access the allowance are in real terms hundreds of dollars worse off a month than students even a decade ago, which is nothing on when education was effectively free prior to the 1980s," she said.

"Internationally and locally accepted 'affordability' measurements declare no one should be spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. We need affordable, healthy homes for everyone."

The survey was designed with input from Point and Associates, was distributed by Swarbrick and student unions, and a subset of 10 percent of responses weighted for gender, ethnicity and regional demographic averages was analysed.

It also recommended enforcing the government's Pastoral Care code of practice introduced last year, free public transport for students, rent controls, a rental warrants of fitness, and improve accessibility and capacity of mental health services.

NZUSA national vice president Sam Blackmore said Education Minister Chris Hipkins had broken his promise to extend the student allowance to post-grad students, and payments should be enough to be liveable.

"This inquiry has proved that students are struggling to make ends meet," he said.

"A weekly payment to every student regardless of level of study, age, or parental income would help students meet day to day costs and reduce long term debt."

He urged the government to meet the survey's recommendations.

"Our prime minister states that 'education is the greatest enabler in society' and promised a free tertiary education system to improve the lives of students just five years ago. Yet today, through deliberate political choices and distinct inaction, students remain some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, living in an environment that makes them sick through mould and cold, while eating two-minute noodles."

Education Minister responds

Education Minister Chris Hipkins said the government had done far more for students in the past five years than the previous government in the five years prior.

"This report emphasises that the work we are doing alongside students on student support, student voice, the impact of Covid-19 and living costs is important and should continue - and I am committed to that," Hipkins said.

Chris Hipkins

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

He said student allowances had been increased 58.1 percent between 2017 and 2022, which compared to 3.6 percent between 2012 and 2017, the first year of university had been made free, and apprenticeships had been funded to make the option available to all.

"We also put the Hardship Fund and Technology Access Funds in place to help students stay engaged with their learning, access the equipment they need, as well as provide general support with wellbeing and costs of studying throughout Covid-19," he said.

"The Hardship Fund for Learners was topped up by a further $20 million last year, because the government recognises the pressure students have been under."

Hipkins said the government had made the biggest investment in mental health in New Zealand's history, and taken steps to help renters including the healthy homes standards, rent increase limitations, a ban on rental bidding and letting fees, and abolishing no-cause terminations.

"We are focused on improving rental affordability and the supply of homes, as well as lifting people's incomes by raising the minimum wage every year and increasing the Accommodation Supplement in 2018."

He also referred to the government's efforts to ease the cost of living with half-price public transport and fuel excise cuts, a crackdown on supermarket competition, and a short-term payment for lower-income families.

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