International students facing financial hardship feel that Pūtea Tautoko does not address their needs.
“I spend more on tuition fees than anything else,” said Syd*. The funds available to help international students provide living costs, but avoid the expensive international tuition fees. Syd said this was “helpful but misguided, feels a little extortionate”.
“In order to finish their studies at Otago, international students had to cut down costs of basics like food and electricity to save and pay for their tuition fees,” said OUSA International Representative Arina Aizal. “International students do not have the privilege of applying for government study loans, which means they need to prepare almost $5000 for ONE paper in a semester.”
The New Zealand International Students Association (NZISA) said that institutions are “capitalising on international students for financial relief due to the COVID-19 Pandemic”.
On 8 April, two weeks into the Level 4 lockdown, NZISA asked universities to refund the first semester fees that international students had paid. They called attention to the unattended labs and placements, and the impersonal Zoom calls in which classes were conducted. That didn’t happen. NZISA was successful in part, but universities would only refund students who deferred their study or withdrew altogether.
Education New Zealand (the organisation responsible for supporting international students) launched a million-dollar International Student Hardship Fund on 21 May. That fund is limited to $20,000 per institution and a $1000 grant per student. The grant cannot be applied to tuition fees.
Pūtea Tautoko, Otago’s own hardship fund, is available to international students but comes with the same limitation. It does not cover tuition fees. “International students are able to access exactly the same kinds of support as any student applying for Pūtea Tautoko,” said David Thomson, Chair of the Pūtea Tautoko Governance Group.
“I wouldn’t have stayed here if I didn’t want to make a contribution to Kiwi culture, but I feel like they’re milking me for all I’m worth,” Syd said.
Ella said that “there hasn’t been much talk [of a fee refund] now the focus is on other issues”.
“Dad lost his job and declared bankruptcy. Mum has lost much of her pay,” said Kevin, an Honours student from Indonesia. He has spent four years here, intent on a Masters in Pharmacology at Otago, and took out a loan to afford this year’s study.
“Now I have to go back, start working and help [my family] financially,” said Kevin. His family’s hardship began before Pūtea Tautoko’s introduction. Because his family needs him to return, he cannot continue studying and will have to exit his course. Kevin said that one of his professors offered to create a personal scholarship for him, and to help with what funds they could source.
There’s “a sense that because you’re not a New Zealander, because you’re a foreigner, there are New Zealanders who deserve it more,” said Justine. She lost her part-time waitressing job, could not get enough assistance from her parents to cover living costs, and applied for Pūtea Tautoko.
Ella, another international student, has friends who applied for Pūtea Tautoko and recommended that she did, too. So far she hasn’t applied for either of the two hardship funds because she believes her hardship “isn’t dire enough”.
“I’m not sure how hardship my hardship is,” Kevin said. He believed that the fund created a pecking order of terrible situations, leaving applicants uncertain of why they should qualify and others shouldn’t.
Ella said she “fears being a burden and is intimidated to ask for help”. Kevin said this was the reason why he didn’t apply for Pūtea Tautoko. “There will be New Zealanders who need it more,” he said.
“I highly recommend that international students who need the money to go ahead and apply for it, you are not disadvantaged as the process of applying for the hardship fund is confidential,” Arina said.
Ella and Kevin boil their perspectives down to the stereotypes they have experienced that surround international students - namely the stereotype that, as international fees are often over four times more expensive than domestic, international students are ‘more well-off’ than domestic students.
“This perception that international students can afford the fees outright is not correct,” said Ella. “What people don’t see is the sacrifices made at home so we can come here.”
“There is no evidence in terms of the numbers applying or receiving support to suggest that international students as a whole are less reluctant to apply to Pūtea Tautoko than other students,” said Thomson. He said that there have been 574 applications to the fund, 15% of which were international students. This percentage matches the percentage of international students at Otago Uni.
“Examples of financial struggles that international students are having due to Covid-19 are the impacts of Covid-19 on their families back home,” Arina said. “Those impacts may include [the] shutting down of family businesses and loss of income sources which have impacted their upcoming funds for next semester’s international fees or their monthly expenses in general.”
“We are very fortunate to be in the New Zealand bubble, but some parts of the world aren’t getting better.”