The Perpetual Student: the life of the student who never graduates is under threat

What do you picture when imagining the ‘perpetual student?’ A hunched and green-blazered old joker, whose sleeping head isn’t visible within the fortress of library reference books that he constructs around himself every day? Or a strutting, regularly-wassuping party animal with worried eyes that tell the truth of countless failed papers and switched majors? Two very different images – because, you see, although (s)he may be an easily recognisable stereotype, the perpetual student does not really have a fixed form.
Some simple guidelines to start with: the perpetual student has been at university for upwards of eight or nine years, and the end of their university career is not yet foreseeable. They have switched between, or non-concurrently completed, at least two different undergraduate degrees. And the most abstract ingredient: they remain a distinctive, memorable sight around campus.
Just as importantly, there are many things a perpetual student is not. We are not talking here about lab/office-dwelling postgraduates; their university stint is lengthy but not convoluted. Nor does the term encompass those brave older souls who have put their jobs on hold and children in day-care to enhance your class experience with lively lecturer banter; these creatures are instead called ‘mature students.’ 
Perpetual students are those whose path of study has been lengthened and repeatedly curved by, among many other varying factors, their ongoing delight in the flexibility of university life. 
The interpretation of the perpetual student as a character can be polarising. Could they be romantic figures? Most students these days spend their university years being shunted along the production line of the degree-machine that is their university. So there is certainly a romantic aspect to the idea of somebody jumping off the conveyor belt, a romantic hero brave enough to follow on

ly the dictates of his inspiration and thus triumph over the restraints of social convention. 
On the other hand, some would say that the tragic figure is more appropriate. Institutionalised and afraid of ‘the real world’, are perpetual students doomed to drown in a whirlpool of meaningless study? Is it really a noble pursuit to be piling degree upon degree in the hope that one day your thirst for knowledge will be quenched, and your main passion happened upon? Something like the following is probably regularly heard from those who prefer to set their whitebait net on the right (as in, instead of the left) side of the river: “Whiling away your twenties with fluff like Portugese Studies is all well and good if you’re using your own money, but when you’re being funded by student loans, you’re committing self-indulgent crimes against the taxpayer.”
One man who would appear to prefer the latter interpretation is Education Minister Steven Joyce. Last month, Joyce hinted at planned changes to eligibility for interest-free student loans. He is planning to introduce a “lifetime limit” on student loans, meaning that after six or seven years of study at an undergraduate level, students will become ineligible for student loans. 
While justifying the proposed changes on TVNZ’s Breakfast, Prime Minister John Key’s words had undertones of disdain for the likes of perpetual students: “The poor old cleaner that's out there, working from midnight to six in the morning, or eight in the morning, working their socks off to get paid the minimum wage is actually paying taxes to go to the students. That's fine as long as the students are actually taking the process seriously.”
A threatening message indeed, but do six-plus years of undergraduate study truly mean that the student at question isn’t taking “the process” seriously? Some case studies are necessary. Critic investigated how some students end up spending a longer time completing whatever it is they end up completing than Key and Joyce would like them to. 
First stop in the investigation was Yvonne Gaut, a careers advisor at the Careers Development Centre. Gaut was unable to talk about particular cases but was positive about students that have lengthier-than-average university stays. In her line of work she has, of course, encountered countless students that were thinking about “changing ideas, changing plans, a lot of people in the middle wondering whether this is right.” It seemed this has shaped her view that taking a few years to explore a few different options before settling on a particular course is very healthy. Gaut thinks that if they are realised, Joyce’s plans to discourage long-term undergraduates “would be a real shame, because then you don’t actually find what you do like and what you don’t like, because you’ve had that choice taken away from you … a lot of people make decisions from the process of elimination.” 
Gaut’s views are backed by her regular contact with employers. The question of whether employers frown upon applicants that have changed course a number of times allows her to offer a surprising insight: “it’s probably something that’s quite good, because it’s someone that’s discovered something rather than just doing it because it’s what their family said, or they just chose it for whatever reason they had … in fact the employer prefers a student that’s been here at least four years because the employer thinks they’re a more well-rounded graduate.”
Dan* fulfils the cliché of a scholar whose broad-ranging interests have combined with his love of the student lifestyle to produce a bizarre combination of completed studies. He started in 2000 (and still has the black and white student ID card) with a double Honours BA in English and Maths, completed in the minimum five years. Dan then begsn an MA in History, with the thesis topic of the history of astronomy in New Zealand, but “pretty much lost interest in the topic due to a lack of source material; New Zealand by the way is a terrible place to do astronomy … too cloudy.” Next was a Bachelor of Computer Science, again completed in the minimum period. After doing a few English papers on the side throughout the years, Dan felt himself “quite attracted” to the area, so this year he is completing a Post-Graduate Diploma in English: “as you can see it’s been a very long and convoluted process.”
Dan is readily introspective on the reasons for the changes in his plans and his long stint at university. “I like flexibility, I like the lifestyle. I just like learning.” But a decade on campus is not all happiness. “The downside of hanging around university this long is that everyone leaves. It’s like in fiction, when someone acquires immortality and they get all melancholy that all the people that they’ve come to know and appreciate die.” We agreed that his situation is similar to the irony in there being fewer people at your funeral the longer you live past a certain point. Being a long-term student has become part of Dan’s self-identity over the years, “to some extent I identify as, being a student is a key part of my identity, and you know, when I eventually leave university, because it will happen at some point, it will be a case of trying to get past the identity of being a student.” 
Dan has worked as the proof-reader for the ODT’s obituaries for the last five years, but has also drawn a student loan that currently sits around the $56k mark. He believes Joyce’s plans would be “asking for so many absurdities. He’d be cutting off student loans to people like me who have never failed papers but have committed the crime of wanting to do more than one undergrad degree. I think it would discourage an awful lot of people from wanting to broaden their horizons … which I do think is sort of sad because exploring other options is half the fun of university.” 
Currently employed as OPSA’s Association Services Officer, Mark Baxter is a Dunedin campus stalwart. His fame is affirmed by the fact he comes wth his own prefix: “Long-time University affiliate and staunch campaigner.” Baxter began studying pure sciences in 1988, before shifting to computer sciences briefly, and then to a psychology major, finishing with a BSc Majoring in Psychology in 1998 “with a few interruptions along the way.”
The main interruption was that in Baxter’s second year course fees were introduced, and in his third year universal allowances were removed; he “just couldn’t afford to go full-time, had to do the years part-time, so that took me a lot longer to finish the degree.” A further interruption was his heavy involvement in student politics, being on the OUSA Executive as well as being involved with the Education Action Group. This was an exciting era to have a senior role in student politics. Baxter recalls “the first march I went on, when they first introduced fees, damn near every polytech and uni student must have been there, there were blocks and blocks and blocks covering George Street.”
Similarly to other interviewees, Baxter praises the current flexibility of student life, “the fact that you can hop about and learn different things I think is excellent, important to young and developing people.” He sees the possible absolutes of Joyce’s plans as dangerous: “the more times you enforce rules and regulations on the system, the more times people that need that system will fall through those cracks.”
The final case study was in no mood to be studied at all. Rupert* responded by email to the interview request rather dramatically: “this is not a part of my life that I am keen to relive and I do not recommend this as a ‘lifestyle’ for anyone.” Mamma mia! One can only guess as to why Rupert regards these many years with such regret. The obvious hypothesis is that he views the period the same way he’d reflect on an epic self-love session: a dirty, regretful waste of time that achieved nothing but fleeting internal pleasure.
There is no mould for perpetual students. By their very nature they follow diverse, unique paths. They do, though, seem to share similar motives: broad interests and a passion for learning, an attachment to the flexibility of student life, and eventual involvement in extra-curricular campus activities. Dunedin’s seductive student lifestyle is perhaps more likely than most to result in these motives coalescing in an unsuspecting undergrad to create a perpetual student.
But the Government’s plans to put a limit on loan-funded undergraduate study threaten the option of perpetual study. It seems that Joyce and Key believe that a student’s undergraduate study is only beneficial to the country for their first six years, and that after this point it becomes selfish, an indication that the student is not taking the process seriously. One can only assume that Key’s definition of “taking the process seriously” involves completing a degree as soon as possible and abruptly leaving. But there are many reasons for a drawn out undergraduate career – changing course repeatedly, the old-fashioned pursuit of erudition, or disruptive involvement in student politics – and it is the individual’s values that will judge the worthiness of each. As the administration’s sly machinations make the university more of a machine each year, it would certainly be a shame to see the unique breed that it is perpetual students extinguished.
*Not their real names.
The Ultimate Perpetual Student
The holder of the title of ‘Most Educated Person on Earth’ is a contentious issue – the Guiness Book of Records doesn't even know.
Michael Nicholson, a retiree in Kalamazoo, Michigan possibly takes out the title with 27 degrees including 19 Masters degreees and one doctorate. “Although he's not an ‘A’ student, he still is motivated to learn something new that is interesting and worthy of exploration,” a local newspaper reports.
Another Michigan man, Benjamin Bolger also has his eyes set on the title and frequently courts publicity for his cause. He has attended Oxford and Cambridge as well as a string of prestigious Ivy League schools earning 10 Masters degrees and a doctorate. According to a less-than-flattering profile of Bolger in Harvard’s student newspaper he has his sites set on the White House.
One thing Bolger has obviously not picked up in his studies is that education does not necessarily lead to good governance. According to various websites Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is the most qualified person in all of Africa. Critic cannot independently confirm this, but he does have a boatload of degrees.
Originally graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Fort Hare in South Africa in 1951, Mugabe went on to study at Oxford, Salisbury, Gwelo and Tanzania Universities. Subsequently he earned six further degrees through distance learning including a Bachelor of Administration and Bachelor of Education from the University of South Africa and a Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Laws, Master of Science, and Master of Laws, all from the University of London External Programme.
Critic suggests he should have taken an Economics paper.
Posted 2:04pm Sunday 11th July 2010 by Thomas redford.