Covid-19

Students’ futures hang in limbo

The economic repercussions of coronavirus are impacting all areas of society. Pete McKenzie looks at what it's like for students around the country.

University students across the country have been thrust into unprecedented uncertainty, both financial and emotional, by the fast-moving Covid-19 crisis. As the pandemic disrupts the tourism and hospitality industries in particular, many students find themselves out of a job and struggling to pay rent while the four-week lockdown looms. 

Ciara Mitchell, a student at Victoria University of Wellington, worked a casual contract at one of Wellington’s most iconic venues. On Saturday the 22nd, she was informed there would be no more shifts for her to work. “I don’t get paid sick leave, or other benefits ... At the moment due to this, I won’t be able to afford groceries and bills, so my only option is to go home”.

Some overseas countries with the virus, such as America, are facing an unemployment rate of up to 20 percent. While there’s no indication unemployment will increase that drastically in New Zealand, economists are predicting a significant jump - potentially to a level higher than at any time in the last two decades. The hardest hit will be those on casual contracts, which are far easier for employers to eliminate as they face drastic revenue drops, and those working in tourism or hospitality, which have few, if any, work from home options and whose business model depends on in-person customers. Students are overrepresented in both of those categories. 

A different Victoria University student, who asked not to be named, was told on Sunday the 23rd that she no longer had a casual job as a payroll filing clerk at one of New Zealand’s largest government agencies because they couldn’t provide a remote working option. “[I’m] having to move home, as I cannot afford rent and the cost of living.” 

Students can get a weekly payment of up to $235.84 from Studylink to cover their living costs, but that is quickly consumed by housing costs in expensive university cities like Wellington and Auckland where rent typically costs between $200 and $350 - meaning casual or part-time jobs are necessary in order for students to afford basic expenses. 

As a result of the sudden financial crunch, students around the country are rushing to return to their family home. Many will find it difficult. According to another student in Wellington, “trying to access transport back to Auckland was impossible today. Travel is expensive enough on a student budget. I want to be with my family at this time, but the cost of transport is really prohibiting me from doing this”. Other students who are able to afford tickets have struggled to purchase them as travel providers deal with an influx of demand. 

Even if students can return home, it potentially means putting their loved ones in danger. According to Tamatha Paul, a Wellington City Councillor and former president of Victoria University’s student union, “a lot of people can’t move home… because that means returning to their vulnerable grandparents. And they don’t know if they’ve contracted anything, because unless you fit into the at-risk category and show symptoms you can’t get tested.” Indeed, if there is already undetected community spread in New Zealand, the mass movement of tens of thousands of students across the country is likely to dramatically worsen the problem. 

As a result, many students find themselves in an unenviable Catch-22: unable to return home due to the expense or for fear of unwittingly spreading the virus, and unable to afford to remain where they are. In response, the New Zealand Union of Students Associations (NZUSA) is demanding that the government establish a ‘Covid-19 Hardship Fund’ for students in this position. According to Isabella Lenihan-Ikin, NZUSA’s President, “the weekly income that students receive from the Government is insufficient to cover essential costs at the best of times. With employment drying up for students and tertiary providers closing their doors for students for indefinite time periods, students face even great financial insecurity. The Government needs to act urgently to ensure that students can access emergency hardship funding.”

Grant Robertson, the Minister of Finance, has already announced a range of measures to financially support businesses and individuals, including wage subsidies, benefit increases and a ban on rent increases or no-cause evictions. But even significant wage subsidies are unlikely to encourage employers to retain workers if their businesses have no incoming revenue or if the nature of the business means working from home isn’t possible. And students are worried that, since many will be unable to pay even current levels of rent, some landlords may argue that they do have a reason to evict: non-payment of rent. 

Robertson has indicated that further announcements of financial support for individuals are on the way. Students are waiting with bated breath. 

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