Under a Labour Government, anyone starting tertiary education for the first time in 2018 would receive a year of full-time study without having to pay fees. However, while some are delighted with the announcement, others are concerned about the impacts on tertiary education and industry training, government spending and debt.

Labour’s decision to bring forward its plan to offer three years’ fees-free post-school education to begin next year, was part of its $6 billion education package, announced yesterday. The package includes a $50 boost to student allowances, which is one reason Labour’s education policy price tag has soared beyond the $4 billion it initially proposed.

“It’s been great to hear so much support already for our plans to make post-secondary school education and training affordable,” says Labour leader Jacinda Ardern.

The New Zealand Union of Student Associations (NZUSA) and Tertiary Education Union are among those in favour of the proposal.

“Making tertiary study more affordable for students, and their families, means that New Zealanders from lower socio-economic backgrounds are one step closer to experiencing the transformative power of education,” says NZUSA President Jonathan Gee.

Gee also welcomed Labour’s move to increase student allowances by $50. However, he was critical of the proposal to lift the amount that students can borrow, describing this as a “short-term solution”. The NZUSA would prefer to increase access to the student allowance.

Sandra Grey, national president of the Tertiary Education Union said it was great to see that Labour has listened to tertiary education staff and students by committing to policies that will improve access to learning opportunities for many. She described the policy as a “popular alternative to the clear failings of National’s market-based approach to tertiary education”.

It is not popular with everyone, however, with strong opposition coming from the Taxpayers’ Union, who released a briefing paper today criticising Labour’s policy.

The paper, Robin Hood Reversed: How Free Tertiary Education Robs Today’s Poor for Tomorrow’s Rich, discusses how similar policies overseas have led to job shortages in crucial areas, and poorer quality courses.

“The costs of such a policy are borne by low and middle-income earners, to help tomorrow’s rich get a free ride,” says union executive director Jordan Williams.

“Not charging students a cent for courses is a recipe for poor quality and bums-on-seats-type establishments.”

Industry Training Federation chief executive Josh Williams is pleased to see that Labour has recognised that post-school education is broader than university, by including apprenticeships and work-based training in their announcements. He points out that only three out of 10 school leavers enrol in degree-level education, but tertiary education announcements almost always focus on this group.

“We are interested in how Labour’s ‘first-year free’ policy would be implemented to support work-based learners, and call on any future government to provide better support to employers to take on new trainees and apprentices, who are also in their first year of study,” says Williams.

National Party Campaign Chair Steven Joyce has criticised Labour’s tertiary policy and others for the impact it will have on government spending and debt.

“Big increases in expenditure and debt can only flow through into higher interest rates, and that would be bad for Kiwi businesses and homeowners. That’s before you even get in to Labour’s extra taxes,” he says.

ACT party leader David Seymour agrees.

“Instead of fixing this real problem, Labour wants to tax the daylights out of working New Zealanders to fund an election bribe for people who are disproportionately upper-middle class,” says Seymour.

“The real gaps in education are not in universities, but in primary and secondary schools that are struggling to attract talented teachers. Free tertiary education is no use to the secondary school students falling behind and dropping out.”


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