We're often told that education is the "pathway out of poverty". But in 21st century Aotearoa New Zealand, socio-economic status remains the sole major determinant of educational success. As inequality researcher Max Rashbrooke summarises, "The core problem is not that educational failure causes poverty; it's that poverty causes educational failure."
Incredibly intelligent and creative young people come from all backgrounds. But not all of them are given the same opportunities to succeed.
In response to these facts, some will point out the stories of those people who've overcome immense struggle to succeed. By their very nature, those people are outliers; their stories are unique. Using the one-in-a-million trope to justify continual suppression of talent within under-resourced communities is a pretty cruel way to interpret someone's unnecessary struggle and pain.
This week is the beginning of Semester One for many tertiary education students around the country. There's a lot made of the "choice" to take on higher education, to the extent that in the 1980s, politicians began the process that would see students take on ever-increasing, exorbitant debt and decreased quality of life to get through it.
For far too many in this country, this supposed "pathway out of poverty" tends to look quite a lot like a level of mainstream social comfort with several years spent in poverty.
There's a neat story in "the student experience" of two-minute noodles, mouldy flats and part-time work. Working or studying in poverty isn't some cute cosplay. Students are paying an arm and a leg to live in flats that see some develop preventable respiratory illnesses that may stay with them the rest of their lives. Working to study now means chasing the tail of recorded lectures in the dead of the night after a day of low-paid work in order to afford … to study.
How far can we argue our society has really developed if one of our main arguments for this continual suffering is "I went through it too"?
Others argue that students choose to take on this debt because apparently, every single student is the "rational man" in basic economic theory, competing to get the most possible money or reward out of every action. It's argued you can earn more after you complete a degree, so why should "the rest of us" shoulder the burden?
Firstly, try telling that to a nursing or teaching student. Secondly, every time you walk into a building and it doesn't collapse, or know you're in safe hands in the emergency room of the hospital, you're benefiting from other people's education.
The very fact that you don't have to understand the technological process underlying the computer code presenting these words on a screen for your reading pleasure, let alone that if you're reading this in print, you don't have to understand the proliferation of the printing press, means you're benefiting from others' education, experimentation and investment. It shows we as a society all benefit from the education of each other.
Imagine how many other life-changing inventions and ideas could have been found had the brains capable of founding them been encouraged and supported, not punished to prove their worthiness to survive.
A number of these inequities will be baked in at every stage of early childhood, primary, intermediate and high school. But for some reason, nowhere are we more comfortable with accepting it than at the tertiary education stage.
Students make up 6 per cent of the population of this country. Of those 350,000 odd students, only around 8 per cent of them receive means-tested student allowance, on average receiving half of the maximum, leaving the small minority who do get that support with around $130 a week. The average rent in this country is $540 a week.
This pandemic has shown we are our best when we think and act for our collective good. It's shown the importance not only of good science, but of communicating that science. This process of public education has made all of us into armchair epidemiologists … and shown the value of the scientific method and peer-reviewed research.
Rebuilding from this crisis, we have the collective choice to decide whether to invest in truly accessible education for all. Who's going to pay for it? Well, there's an estimated trillion dollars in unearned wealth that's gathered at the feet of those sitting on assets these past two years - if we really want to talk about who's contributing to the nation.
• Chlöe Swarbrick, Green Party, is the MP for Auckland Central