With the end of the year approaching, thousands of school leavers are planning their next steps. If you’re one of those planning to start tertiary study or training for the first time, you may be eligible to study fees-free.

Introduced in 2018, the policy relays the government’s vision for barrier-free access to education. Students can qualify for the equivalent of one year’s fees-free provider-based study, or two years’ industry training. It covers tuition fees, compulsory course costs and student services fees up to $12,000.

Safety net for students

Otago University Students’ Association finance officer Bonnie Harrison says students wouldn’t get “money in the pocket” from day one.
“Rather, it reduces the amount of debt that a student is saddled with after they leave tertiary education,” she says.

The scheme breaks down barriers and reduced the risk for students from low socio-economic backgrounds, she says.

“Those students have as much right as anyone else to pursue tertiary education but may not be able to justify the debt when the outcome of study is not certain.”
It creates a “safety net” for all students to get a feel for their vocation in life, she says.
“It’s also a step towards education, at all levels, being a genuine public good for all – as it should be – and not a privilege for the few.”

Drop in student debt

New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations national president James Ranstead says there has been a huge drop in student debt since the scheme started.
“Financial pressures directly correlate to student mental health, which is a huge issue too.”
Providing free tertiary education “lowered the barriers” for students, he says.
“Take Eastern Institute of Technology in Hawke’s Bay, as an example. They have had strong student numbers coming through and the diversity of students is improving. Its retention and success rates are impressive.”

Auckland University of Technology Student Association vice president Kurt Schmidt says while students enjoy the fees-free scheme, the student loan scheme has a bigger effect.
“Fees free will be something people look back on in the future and are thankful for, but right now students are hungry, stressed and struggling to find accommodation. Whether their tuition is free or on loan is less of an issue than survival.”

However, he says the policy is a step in the right direction.
“It hasn’t led to an increase in students or a reduction in financial stress, but it is appreciated. This generation won’t have the first-year debt, and I’m sure that’ll be appreciated.”

Reduced financial stress

Universities New Zealand chief executive Chris Whelan says the policy has reduced the stress for some.
“It also means there’s less financial worry if you decide that tertiary study isn’t for you.”

Whelan says the system for students to check their eligibility is well-designed.
“There is a helpline and a website that makes it really easy to know very quickly whether you are eligible for the scheme or not.”
However, he warns that some students have been caught out by the nuances of the scheme.

“Some students who haven’t got University Entrance have had to do bridging courses. At this stage, those count against you. So it is something to be aware of. Generally though, if you are going straight from secondary school, you’ll be fine.”

He says the policy hasn’t made a difference in enrolment numbers.
“For those students who are tossing up whether or not to go on to tertiary student, $7,000-odd is not going to change their life plans.”

Study shows positive results

So far there has only been one study, by the University of Canterbury, of how the policy is working. The study found that students who are more heavily influenced by cost-reducing incentives could be more likely to struggle academically and socially during their transition to university and show interest in an early departure from the university within the first few weeks. The study revealed that approximately one in three students were influenced by the policy in their decision, and 5.8 percent stated they would not have enrolled if the policy had not been implemented.

However, Harrison argues that while student enrolment has not “shot through the roof”, the policy was never intended to swell the industry.
“A year of free education gives young people the chance to try something big, risk-free – that freedom is what is most important, not crude statistics from the degree factory.”

She says the government needs to commit to three years of free study.
“Obviously it’s a shame that the fees-free policy didn’t apply to the entire time one spends in the tertiary education system, but we understand that it takes a while to turn back public opinion that has been so influenced by the neo-liberal reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.”

Free tertiary education the end goal

Ranstead says while there has been some debate about the policy’s effect, overall it is worth it.

“A free tertiary education is the end goal. The only complaints we’ve had about the policy is that it is only one year.”
Schmidt agrees that for the policy to fully work it needs full commitment.

“New Zealand needs to commit to full fees free. Any attempt less than this will give sub-par results, which in my opinion are invalid.”
Whelan says while Labour has promised three years of free tertiary education, the Coalition Government has only committed, so far, to one.

“Something that the future government will have to think about very carefully when making a decision about further years fees free is, ‘is it a good use of taxpayer money?’”

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