Women second class students in the neoliberal world



Last week PPTA and the Students Association took a hard look at the untenable situation in which many students find themselves.  ‘Having to borrow to eat’ as panellist Grant Robertson put it at the conference. The latest Students Association Income and expenditure report paints a grim picture of increasing student hardship and mental distress.

Many leave university with eye-watering levels of debt, not just to the student loan scheme but increasingly to fringe lenders and credit card companies, (to say nothing of the bank of Mum and Dad).  

Grant Robertson himself remarked he was a student at the ‘unluckiest’ time, in the 1990s, when high interest student debt could compound out of control. In contrast I was a student at the luckiest of times, emerging from a first degree with no debt, in fact enjoying a subsidised last year with a teachers training college bursary. After another subsidised year at college there was a rich jobs market. I later had a second chance to reinvent myself and my career with a second degree. Oh how things have changed.

In 2005, the Labour government instituted full interest-free loans for New Zealand domiciled students. This was dismissed at the time as an election bribe and a betrayal of the role of market signals in allocating the educational dollar. While undoubtedly, interest-free loans also encouraged more borrowing by students from wealthy families and a reduction in early repayments, it also meant a fundamental improvement for low income students.

So yes, interest-free loans are good but, one has to ask, did they make it easier for government to ratchet up the fees?   Between 2010 and 2015, the average fee rose 31%, outstripping inflation. Will this trend continue this month when the universities set their fees for 2016?  More worrying, a raft of petty, sometimes major, changes in access to allowances and student loans has been this government’s way of making students pay for the costly ‘interest free’ policy.

From the vantage point of 2015 we can agree that interest- free loans made a bad policy less bad, and less dire for women.  But outstanding loans have mushroomed as the Ministry of Education Annual student loan scheme report shows:

And gender does matter. Of those with student debt, 58% are women and 42% are men.

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Women are leaving study with higher median balances that take longer on average than men to repay. As a rough rule of thumb women can expecton average, 80% of the pay of men, for 80% of the time for 80% of a working lifespan. They retire with significantly less wealth than men, but also live longer on average.

Averages and generalisations are easy, but to continue them it is pretty clear the model of student loans is a male model. It is predicated on the notion of a full-time degree, followed immediately by a well-paid job with rapid promotion and repayment of the loan within a short time horizon without impediments of children or other caregiving duties such as older parents.

Some women fit this male loans model and there are men it clearly doesn’t fit, but overall the policy adversely affects women whose lived experience is often very different to that of men.

Social security provisions that are tied in some way to paid work generally don’t work well for women. Those that are not tied to paid work like NZ Superannuation and free tertiary education are more beneficial.  Policies conditional on paid work such as paid parental leave or KiwiSaver with employer subsidies, much less so. Similarly, income-contingent student loans require paid work for their repayment, placing many women at a disadvantage.

Having children requires two parents but is a highly gendered experience. Out of the workforce rearing their children, her student debt is put on hold, but if her partner may quickly get on top of his. Unlike repaying the mortgage that increases their joint property equity, repaying his loan benefits him alone. If the partnership breaks up, she still has her debt and with children may face years of restricted earning capacity.

There has been little thought give to how student loan repayments interact with other policies.  Repayment is required from a very low income of just over $19,000 and at the punitive rate of 12%. If she has to go on Sole Parent Support, the repayments of her loan will reinforce the poverty cycle. Because the gross benefit is nearly at the low repayment threshold, it doesn’t take much part-time work to trigger repayments. An absurd situation is reached whereby if she earns over $200 a week, which is just 13.5 hours on the minimum wage, she faces an effective marginal tax rate that is around 100%. (17.5% tax+1.4% ACC+12% Student loan+70% loss of net benefit)  A real poverty trap.

Over 90% of those on Sole Parent Support are female so it is a gender specific problem. The severe and punitive repayment regime can affect a woman’s capacity to live adequately over long periods, perhaps a lifetime, reducing  her capacity to save for retirement. At the same time, there may be little human capital to show for her investment in tertiary education and she may never repay all her debt in her lifetime.  

I have become very concerned at the absence of sole parents at university and the stress endured by the remaining few.

I met up again recently with a former student who has two young teenage boys. She had been attempting to do full time university on a benefit, surviving by drawing on foodbanks and supplementary hardship payments from Work and Income.  No teenage mum, she is now age 39.  She had been married, but he had been violent and left 7 years ago for Australia. Hardworking frugal, no car, not a smoker or a drinker but without adequate financial support she had to withdraw from study.

Today with two boys, one special needs, and in poor health herself she is unable to work consistently at a formal job. She has a student debt of $15,000. The debt seems unreal when she is trying to stretch the last $10 at the end of each week. It is not worthwhile to earn much on the benefit, nor can she be in KiwiSaver, nor can she re-partner because of relationship rules. She is caught in a cycle of fear, and is lacking a glimmer of hope for the future.

It is time to debate ways of reigning in the monster that student debt is becoming. Much more tax-funded support is required. Repayments could be subsidised or at least deferred while on a benefit or studying. Perhaps the government could recognise unpaid work and write off 10% of a mother’s debt for at least say the first 5 years of the child’s life.  Repayments should be at a much lower rate from a much higher income threshold like in Australia. We should also be urgently debating how we could implement a fair system of debt forgiveness.


  1. You haven’t mentioned if men and women study different subjects at university, from what I know men tend to study more in the engineering and science fields. Where as women tend to study more in the liberal arts perhaps that’s why their is a difference in the time taken to repay a student loan? A qualification in engineering or science is more in demand and pays well, Bachelor of Arts degree not so much.

    • True, but the gendering of the workforce and the gendering of education is the result of patriarchy. Without expanding on your point it’s almost as if you’re blaming women for patriarcy (poor choices instead of systemic oppression).

      Male dominated industry tends to be paid better – as soon as women enter an industry and begin to balance it out, the wages shift into other areas. Michael Kimmel has written about this. Construction workers are paid more than social workers, even though the latter has gone through an intensive 4 year degree. The only women dominated jobs that have reasonable pay are nurses and teachers, but that took strong unions to fight capitalism.

      We choose to not pay parents because women do most of that unpaid work, but manamgement jobs are overvalued – and dominated by men. Management jobs are not more important than raising children – society and organisations would function fine without the David Brents of this world, but parenting is needed. Capitalism isn’t gender neutral, and the kinds of jobs that are open to men and women are not down to personal choices – we’re coerced into them by social norms and gender expectations

      • Yes I am saying it is acceptable to be paid according to what you offer, a person with a Bachelor of Engineering or Science gets on average paid more than someone with a Bachelor of Arts Degree, in fact someone with a trade now gets more than someone with a BA and I have absolutely no problem with that.
        If somebody wants to spend three to four years at university and end up with a qualification in the liberal arts that is not worth the paper it is written, well good on them but don’t cry and moan if nobody employs you because your qualification has very little relevance to the real world.

        • Stephen, don’t you spell your name as ‘Steven’ Joyce?

          The advantage of studying a BA is that we can spot those who are ideologically blinkered and a barrier to creating meaningful social change. Clunky, problematic, objective thinking is an outcome of one’s environment…don’t worry, you probably never had a chance.

          Guess women just make stupid choices because they’re emotional or sumfing sumfing…

  2. ‘Having to borrow to eat’ is a nice slogan from Grant Robertson, but what can students expect from Labour.
    I’m not into judging parties by their past policies because contexts change, but what is Labour going to offer students? Guess what – people graduated into life crippling debt under interest free loans too, and the jobs they moved into were just as precarious.
    When do we abolish the student loan system? Student debt is unacceptable in today’s flexible workplace. Or if we have to have it, perhaps a write-off after a few years.
    Of course, the neoliberal ideologues will say that is unaffordable – bullshit, we’d an incredibly wealthy nation and have been for decades. If you don’t think you can abolish student debt then go join National.

  3. Totally agree.
    For many university education is hardly useful or worth it. Not every degree leads to fulltime well paid work nor does every university student end up in fulltime well paid work as pointed out above.

    Female dominated jobs such as midwifery are shockingly poorly paid yet cost thousands to train for.

    If you were about to give birth ( as most women do at least once) would you want a midwife or a ridiculously overpaid television reporter or rugby player to support you?
    and ditto if you were in hospital .. a nurse or a manager which would you want around you?

    The current economic system we have is patently ridiculous in these type of circumstances.

  4. Not only did students not have to pay off huge loans in the late 1970s and early 1980s, during the Christmas break there was a scheme whereby they could get jobs at very good rates of pay as well. I had a job in Wellington where students came in to register and find a job they liked. There were lots of good jobs like working for Summer City.

    • Yes. And we were given an allowance about the equivalent of the dole during term time to live on.

      We didn’t have to borrow for living costs.

    • Translation: “stop whining women, the reason you’re more often sole parents, earn less and have less in retirement is all due to biology and your own poor choices. Men are just better”.

  5. I have empathy for the situation of women. We are often left holding the children. I have three children five and under. I work 20 hours at minimum wage which at least takes away a stress factor of dealing with winz. I study fulltime for my masters in applied social work, my social policy undergrad degree didn’t allow registration as a social worker so I’m topping up. Since I’ve gone back to sissy there no student allowance for Masters level study. It’s been borrow borrow borrow. My once modest loan has ballooned by tens of thousands thru course fees and course related costs such as accommodation travel to block courses extra for childcare etc. But I was lucky to even be able to get living costs. Bevause I worked 20 hours and studied only 37.5 houts a week… I was not classed as a full time student. I had to literally kick and fight and schedule and interview with seven sharp before they reversed an apparently irreversible decision to decline my student loan costs.

    • Jenna
      How do you do it? your account is amazing.Most women simply cant do that with 3 children under 5. Your working/studying week sounds really full on and that’s before the demands of the children. You are clearly determined and strong. My fear is that not many at all can do what you are forced to do to get the qualification that leads to future family security. Fewer and fewer women will see they can even try.

  6. The gender pay gap for people of equal skills and experience is real and needs to be addressed but I think some of the assertions in this article are misinterpreting the facts.

    1. “Of those with student debt, 58% are women and 42% are men.”

    The reason more women than men have student debt is more likely to do with the fact that girls are outperforming boys in the education system and now boys are under-represented in tertiary education than the gender pay gap.

    2. “Women are leaving study with higher median balances …”

    Again, this is more likely because women are more likely to complete the tertiary studies they undertake than men so they stay longer at uni.

    3. As a rough rule of thumb women can expecton average, 80% of the pay of men, for 80% of the time for 80% of a working lifespan. They retire with significantly less wealth than men, but also live longer on average.

    This seems like a useful rule of thumb and fair assessment for men and women of equal qualifications and experience. I predict that in a very small number of years the hourly rate that women in the workforce earn will far exceed that of the average male hourly rate. I also predict that the gap between male and female life expectancy is not going away anytime soon and frankly, I’m sure most males would rather live an extra 7-10 years and have the ‘problem’ of making my savings last a few more years than be dead.

    • Alex
      Good points thank you but I was not writing about this issue: “The gender pay gap for people of equal skills and experience is real and needs to be addressed”
      I state the facts “Of those with student debt, 58% are women and 42% are men.”
      You are correct that there are more women at tertiary institutions and women have a higher completion rate. That does not alter the facts or the point I was making that the student loan scheme is a male model that does not suit many women because they have a different lived experience.
      You predict that “in a very small number of years the hourly rate that women in the workforce earn will far exceed that of the average male hourly rate.” It does not look that way. The latest pay gap between men and women has actually widened since 2009: there may be a large number of hypotheses and plausible explanations.

      As far as life expectancy is concerned, the gap is narrowing and at age 65 is about 2.5 years.
      Averages and medians are admittedly misleading and not a reliable guide to the actual outcome of any individual.Rest homes are full of women.
      The issue of whether it is fair that men die younger is irrelevant to the issue as to how people manage when they outlive their savings and women have less and on average and have to make that last longer

  7. “And gender does matter. Of those with student debt, 58% are women and 42% are men”

    Of course, there are more women than men enrolled in tertiary education: https://cdn.auckland.ac.nz/assets/central/about/the-university/documents

    Dare I suggest putting off having children until you’ve paid off your student loan? Of course that doesn’t solve the issues around single mothers who wish to further their education. Not sure what a fair solution could be though.

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