New law nips student mum's dream in bud

HARD CHOICE: Wellington woman Tracy Merson, a master's degree student at Massey University, is upset that she is losing her allowance.
HARD CHOICE: Wellington woman Tracy Merson, a master's degree student at Massey University, is upset that she is losing her allowance.

Wellington mum Tracy Merson has been forced to abandon her studies just short of a masters degree - for a possible career as a psychologist - after new student allowance legislation whipped the financial rug out from under her.

She is one of many postgraduate students whom Labour tertiary education spokesman Grant Robertson is demanding the Government rethink its policy to protect.

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce announced during last year's Budget that postgraduate students would no longer be eligible for a student allowance, effective from this month.

About 5000 students already enrolled in postgraduate courses believed they would have continued support, but some loopholes mean many do not.

Ms Merson, 47, was one thesis away from gaining a Massey University psychology masters when she was told she would no longer receive her $350 weekly allowance to support her studies.

Because the thesis paper was a different code to the postgraduate diploma papers she completed over the last two years, it was considered a new qualification.

"I think everyone has been caught out by it."

Caught "between a rock and a hard place", she has had to put her studies on hold despite already racking up a $6000 student loan.

Because she is on a domestic purposes benefit, she does not qualify for student loan living costs, and the $172.50 maximum a week would not be enough to support her daughters, aged 12 and 13.

"I'm scrambling trying to get any job at the moment, just to feed the kids. I don't want to give up my dreams forever, but for now, I have to focus efforts on getting a job."

The legislation had major ramifications for students like her who had budgeted wisely, she said.

"I think new legislation is fine but maybe honour those who have made a commitment and let them finish study," she said.

She went from feeling as if she had made a sensible decision to further her skills to being in the middle of financial "chaos".

"It seems a shame. It's been my passion for years, and I was so close."

The Government's website states that there is a shortage of psychologists, and the only way to become one is to get a master's degree.

A limited number of people are training since most universities take only about 10 postgraduate psychology students a year, the website says.

Mr Robertson said Labour opposed the abolition of allowances for postgraduate students, and urged Mr Joyce to think again. "If he does not do so, he will force some students to flag away their studies.

"This is a huge waste for them and for New Zealand as a whole."

Vague and confusing announcements from the Government and StudyLink meant many students were only now discovering their ineligibility for allowances.

During question time in Parliament in May, Mr Joyce said that students who applied for allowances in 2013 for an enrolment period that started in 2012 would not be affected by the changes.

"I think we all accept [Ms Merson's] situation doesn't fit his rules," Mr Robertson said. "We just think his rules are silly."

A spokeswoman for Mr Joyce said he did not intend to change the policy, but students such as Ms Merson were still eligible for a student loan.

Mr Robertson said he was "extremely disappointed" to hear that.

Contact Jody O'Callaghan
Education reporter
Email: jody.o'
Twitter: @miss_jodyo

The Dominion Post