INDEPENDENT NEWS

Girls Can Do Anything Except Pay Off Their Loans

Published: Thu 18 Dec 2003 02:28 PM
‘Girls can do anything’ - except pay off their student loans, that is
Guest Opinion From Rebecca Elvin
The Human Rights Commission has decided to examine the New Zealand University Students Association’s claim that women with student loans are discriminated against because they take, on average, twice as long to clear their debt than men. This publicity stunt has forced our flawed loan system back onto the public stage.
I am a university student. I am female. I have a student loan. And I disagree with NZUSA’s attempt to convert the funding of my tertiary education into a gender or human rights issue.
It seems to me that NZUSA has confused two distinct ideas. The never ending quest for more rights and greater equality has been merged with the opportunity to try and bludgeon the growing debt monster that stalks tertiary students and recent graduates.
Camilla Belich, the NZUSA Women’s Rights Officer, claims that “the student loan scheme is unfair to women”. Belich’s sentiments highlight the confusion present between the symptom and the cause of the problem. The student loan scheme is unjust; however, its true impact is not confined to women. If it is an issue of discrimination, the scheme has prejudiced the future of an entire generation.
Such injustice points to a greater social problem than the student loan scheme itself. The present government cannot feasibly fund tertiary education for every person who wants it. Increasing social dysfunction and economic pressure mean that young people cannot rely on their family to help them through in the way they once did. As a result, the choice of tertiary education comes with a cost to the individual (often paid through a student loan).
Human rights were once about protecting citizens from state tyranny. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was forged after the Nuremberg Trials when the effects of totalitarianism were still fresh in most people’s minds. Rights and duties, and the interests of individuals, groups and societies were all intertwined. Today, however the right of the individual before the law has yielded to the rights of groups to equal treatment by the state. But, “equal treatment” in this case is a misnomer, because it means positive discrimination to give legal advantage to the current (equal) status of women.
By making the loan repayment scheme a human rights issue, we replace the universal basis of human rights with group empowerment rights created by the state. Attempts like this to bring equality through law undermine the very foundation of such rights—the inherent dignity that each of us has as a human being—and replaces it with state intervention. Human rights, once an instrument to affirm freedom, have become a tool of the state to ‘manufacture’ equality. The consequence of handing such power over to the state is exactly the opposite intended in the UDHR.
Considering the problem as a rights issue opens a Pandora’s Box of governmental engineering. Such interference erodes our ‘rights’, limits our freedom, marginalises our choices and removes any aspect of personal responsibility from our decision making.
Will the human rights commission recommend that the government legislate a set period within which we must pay off our loans? Will it take our earning capacity, our desire to have children, and any possible mortgages into account and manipulate the market to achieve the desired result? Where do the consequences of individual choice and personal responsibility fit into this charming utopia of equal outcomes? Or do such concepts no longer exist?
It is a simple fact that some people (for a variety of reasons) take longer than others to pay off their loan. What makes the alleged disparity between men and women greater than that between different ethnic or socio-economic groups, or even people with different qualifications or spending habits?
Consider for a moment one of the Seven Principles for Sound Public Policy from the Mackinac Center in Michigan: ‘A free people cannot be equal, and an equal people cannot be free. The more you have of the one, the less you have of the other’.
Expecting the government to uphold ‘rights’ and guarantee equal outcomes along with equal opportunity is a line of reasoning that, taken to its logical conclusion, smacks of Marxism. Applying such reasoning to the commercial sector would be farcical. Will banks be expected to now take into account such ‘difference’ between men and women when considering residential mortgages or commercial loans?
An analogy may be drawn with the over-representation of Maori in our prison system. A ‘level playing field’ cannot be created by minimising the role of free choice and sentencing Maori according to a different judicial standard to bring the statistics back in line with other cultural or ethnic groups within New Zealand. Instead, the solution must be found in addressing the social, cultural and economic factors that influence such a result. It is in this way that true justice and equity may be achieved.
We are all equal before the law. The student loan repayment criteria, like mortgage conditions and academic requirements to enter university, are the same for either sex. Inequality and limits on our freedom would arise only if the government were forced to alter such criteria. The loans scheme may be unjust, but it is an issue beyond discrimination and difference between the sexes.
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Rebecca Elvin is a Student Intern at Maxim Institute’s Centre for Tomorrows Leaders. Maxim is a social policy think-tank – www.maxim.org.nz

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