Amicus Curiae: Should Old Dogs Be Allowed to Learn New Tricks?

Elizabeth Murray

As students, we understand only too well the financial struggles that come with trying to put ourselves through tertiary education. With both the cost of living and tertiary fees rising, the Government continues to restrict access to various parts of the student loan system. Recently, the Government has been accused of implementing ageist policies as part of this effort.

Southlander Ashley King, 63, has been the most recent to complain about the Government’s continual cutting of mature and postgraduate funding in our universities. Mr King said he was shocked to discover that students over 55 are unable to take out interest-free loans for living or course-related costs, currently $176.86 per week and $1000 per annum respectively. However, like all students, they are able to take out interest-free loans on their course costs.

Mr King’s grievance adds to the multiple complaints to the Human Rights Commission over last year’s restriction to the student allowance to just three years for those aged over 40. The Human Rights Commission received 35 complaints as to ageist education policies from 2011 to the start of 2014. These restrictions mean these students have to have saved enough money prior to starting studying to support them for the duration of their qualification.

This seems unrealistic. Our ageing population is still working but also faces discrimination in the workplace. Research looking into age discrimination in the New Zealand Workplace in 2007 found that age restricted employees in training opportunities, recruitment, reduced working hours, and redundancy.

Education is supposed to be a tool to combat this; by up-skilling, older workers can advance further or diversify in the workplace. This is especially important for those, like Mr King, whose age or conditions brought on by age and their work history, has prevented them from continuing to work in their field. Mr King has been working as chef for more than 40 years, but cannot continue due to a diagnosis of early onset arthritis. He is seeking to gain a qualification that would allow him to enter middle management in his field, allowing him to continue to contribute to our workforce and share his hands-on experience. It’s not just diagnoses like Mr King’s that pose a problem. Those in manual labour jobs will increasingly find themselves cut out of the work place as younger, fitter workers take their place. One of the only ways to ensure these people continue to find work is to allow them to up-skill.

The contradiction of encouraging mature students to enter tertiary education, yet restricting the support available to them, is irreconcilable. To combat ageist discrimination in the workplace, education must be accessible to all. If the Government expects their workforce to continue working into old age, they must provide opportunities for them to achieve in the workforce, not preclude them from getting there.

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