In New Zealand, the number of students attending university has grown exponentially for much of the last century. This is hardly surprising – recent research by Te Pōkai Tara Universities New Zealand found that compared to those who completed their formal education in secondary school, graduates experience lifetime economic benefits estimated in the range of $1 million to $4 million. This reflects the value society places on graduates for the role they play in the creation of better economic and social outcomes for the country. And so, when a student has the ability to go to university but doesn’t, it is a great waste of talent for both the individual and our nation.
Although we pride ourselves on being an egalitarian society, the fact is that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds have a much lower chance of attaining the benefits of a university degree than those whose families are well off. This is partly because those students have lower rates of success in school.
However, even when they have similar success rates in the national examinations, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to go to, and succeed at, university or other tertiary education. There are several reasons for this. Poor families and communities often have no history of or experience with university education, so there is no peer encouragement to attend university, as there often is in more affluent communities. The university environment is unfamiliar and therefore challenging.
"I can still remember when the email arrived telling me I’d been awarded the scholarship. I just sat staring at the screen. It was five minutes before I could call Mum. My Dad was sick for a long time before he died. He knew what I wanted. I had all these big dreams but without the financial help of a scholarship that’s all they would ever be. I think he’d be happy for me." Klára Kiššová, First Year Health Science Student, Aspiring Future Doctor
Furthermore, university study takes the prospective student out of the workforce, which creates a significant cost in lost income to the family. University campuses are often in the central city whereas low socio-economic communities tend to be in outlying suburbs, so that attending classes incurs costs in transport and travel time. All of these factors, coupled with poorer student performance in school, reduce the likelihood that gifted students from poorer backgrounds will be able to attend university.
The University of Auckland offers a number of scholarships and other forms of support to help these students attend and succeed at University. We do this because we believe that all students of ability should have the opportunity to benefit from the University experience, but also because when these students graduate, their higher salaries will help improve the standard of living for both current and future generations, so creating a virtuous circle of benefits.
One of our real successes has been with ‘First in Family’ scholarships designed to support those students from low socio-economic backgrounds who have no history in their family of university experience. However, the need for this kind of support is much greater than the University alone can meet. By increasing the support we can provide to students from low socio-economic backgrounds, we have the opportunity to ensure that their talents are not wasted through a lack of education and so benefit both their families and the nation.