Free education could leave our universities less competitive with the world’s best. Photo / 123RF

Poorly considered public policy usually has damaging logical consequences. Labour’s free tertiary education policy may have brought it votes at this year’s election but the consequences are just becoming apparent.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins has confirmed the fees-free policy will not apply to non-citizens, including Australians.

They will have to have been here three years to qualify for a year’s free tertiary study, just as they do now for student loans and allowances.

Obviously education funded entirely by the taxpayer has to be limited to citizens or long term residents who have been paying taxes here for a reasonable time.

But it is a pity, nevertheless, that our universities can no longer be open to students of other countries on the same basis as our own.

Our universities are in a competitive global environment. They all watch their international rankings keenly for it is these that can help attract top scholars to a country and the industries that grow from the innovation and expertise of world-leading faculties.

Auckland, the highest ranked of New Zealand’s seven universities, 27 places to 192nd in the world on the latest Times Higher Education Supplement’s assessments published in September.

Australia has six universities in the top 100. If Auckland or Otago, our second highest, are ever to compete with the likes of Melbourne (32), Australian National University (48), Sydney (61) or Queensland (65), they need all the funding they can muster, public and private.

Yet New Zealand’s universities have been sliding in the rankings for a decade. Auckland University has blamed this on, “some of the lowest levels of income per student in the world.” For the past 25 years, students have been charged fees equivalent to about a quarter of their course costs.

Those who needed to borrow the cost were provided with a heavily subsidised loan. Universities are worried that when they lose fees from students, their income per student overall will fall.

It is an understandable fear. When fees are removed the Government will have to more severely cap the numbers it can afford to pay for.

The numbers it is willing to fully finance, and whether it will fully cover the fees set by universities, are not yet known, despite the Government’s stated intention to make the first year free when next year’s students enrol in February.

Labour is concerned about the fiscal cost of its policy, it has delayed making the second and third years free for that reason.

But the universities should be just as worried that when tertiary education becomes free in New Zealand, our universities may have less room for foreign fee-paying students.

Australia, thanks to the reputation of its universities, has the third highest number of international students in the world, behind the UK and the US.

Doubtless the English language helps explain the attraction of all three countries. That is an attraction New Zealand universities should be exploiting too.

With fees and loans, they can be competitive, with Government funds alone they are probably going to severely restricted. The risk is that students looking for the best credentials will go elsewhere.

Source: NZ Herald

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