Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Student Workers: The Unequal Load of Paid and Unpaid Work in the Neoliberal University

Academic journal article New Zealand Sociology

Student Workers: The Unequal Load of Paid and Unpaid Work in the Neoliberal University

Article excerpt

Introduction

A long period of neoliberal reforms since the 1980s has profoundly shaped the experience of being a university student in New Zealand. Driven by discourses suggesting universities are the engine of the 'knowledge economy', participation rates across the tertiary sector have increased dramatically, particularly amongst women, Maori and mature age students (Shore, 2010). Changes in university funding structures have led to higher fees and a Student Loan Scheme (SLS) with income contingent repayments. Austerity measures introduced after the 2008 financial crisis increased loan repayment rates, placed caps on programmes and limited access to funding dependent on prior success (Leach, 2013). These processes of 'neoliberalisation' continually shift and take on different expressions (Peck & Tickell, 2002). The Labour-led government elected in 2017 instituted a fees-free policy for first year students in 2018, although broader processes of individual responsibility, accountability, productivity and marketisation continue to drive the tertiary sector. These changes have thrust much of the responsibility for funding tertiary education onto students and their families (Richardson, Kemp, Malinen & Haultain, 2013; Shore, 2010). Assuming large debt loads for the privilege of an education and working while studying in order to meet basic needs have become the norm (Manthei & Gilmore, 2005; Robotham, 2009). This burden, in turn, leads students to report financial hardship, debt and stress (Fitch, Hamilton, Bassett & Davey, 2011; Manthei & Gilmore, 2005; Richardson et al., 2013).

These neoliberal policy changes are part of a broader paradigm shift from the idea that tertiary education is a public good to education as an individual economic investment. Universities have moved from places of critical inquiry to corporations competing to attract student 'customers' (Codd, 2002; Kelsey 1998; Shore, 2010). Prospective students-the 'customers' in this marketplace-are encouraged to see tertiary education as the best way to secure well-paid work and monetary security (Davies & Bansel, 2007; Nairn, Higgins & Sligo, 2012), and to choose courses that are most efficient in terms of salary prospects for the money they invest. In line with this objective, the Tertiary Education Commission was introduced in the early 2000s to "steer the system" (Crawford, 2016, p.17), encouraging students away from programmes "of doubtful value" (Crawford, 2016, p.v)- where 'value' is understood in a very narrow economic sense-and providing equitable access to education that, in the latest Tertiary Education Strategy (TES), aspires to "link to employment opportunities in the labour market" (MoE & MBIE, 2014, p.3). Decision-making tools such as the Occupation Outlook Report (MoE & MBIE, 2014) steer prospective students away from critical social science and humanities subjects, towards specific vocationalfocused degree paths (Davies & Bansel, 2007). Furthermore, providing equitable access to education through the provision of loans that allow people the 'choice' to study has the effect of denying the ways in which structural factors shape individual lives, as Nairn et al. (2012, p.26) note:

Tertiary education policies in New Zealand in recent years have increasingly transferred the costs of tertiary education from the state to individuals, offering prospective students the choice of taking out a loan to cover their expenses ... it is a choice that will have profoundly different consequences for these young people, depending on their material means both while they are students and once they find work . the policy environment has constructed a new social arrangement which, in the neoliberal discursive environment, has been normalised. Everyone appears to have the same choices, and the same opportunities arising from those choices.

As this quote suggests, the silencing of social class, gender and ethnicity in discourses of 'choice' deny the ways that people's different experiences of neoliberal economic and welfare reforms are ongoing in the lives of young people and shape the choices available to them. …

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