new study from the University of Canterbury casts some question marks over the fees-free policy that allows students to study for free in their first year of tertiary education.

The study shows 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 examined students’ self-reported influence of the Fees-Free Policy on their decision to enrol in university. It found that the policy influenced approximately one in three students in their decision, and 5.8 per cent stated they would not have enrolled if the policy had not been implemented.

Findings show that students who were more strongly influenced by the policy reported poorer academic self-efficacy, adjustment to university, subjective wellbeing, university satisfaction, and semester one Grade Point Average (GPA) and were more likely to show interest in withdrawing early from their course.

Universities New Zealand executive director Chris Whelan says university enrolment numbers have been pretty flat for the past six years and he finds it hard to believe that 5.8% of students at Canterbury wouldn’t have enrolled without fees-free.

“In saying that I can absolutely believe that [fees -free] would make it easier for students to drop out because there isn’t as much skin in the game,” he says.

Whelan says that while there is always a proportion of students who will drop out for various reasons, it isn’t surprising that a financial investment does have a bearing on a student’s commitment to his or her study.

He points to two international studies that came out about the same time three years ago, one from the United Kingdom and the other from the United States. Both studies found that students who paid 10,000 GBP or USD for their education were far more likely to stick at it.

“So to some extent we’re not too surprised with findings that say students might be more willing to give it a go, but then also might be more willing to drop out,” says Whelan.

Whelan says the biggest challenge with fees-free is that the policy hasn’t been backed up with additional funding for universities to provide the necessary support for students.

“We always try to ensure that students who are accepted to university are likely to be able to succeed academically and that there is the support available for students if they are struggling academically.

“What they haven’t done is back it up with additional funding for institutions to a) maintain quality and b) provide additional academic support to what is potentially a cohort of students that may need more support.

“We remain hopeful that the Government will recognise that simply increasing access to students needs to be complemented by that support,” says Whelan.

National’s spokesperson for Tertiary Education Shane Reti was scathing about the policy saying it has had “no impact at all”.

“Only six per cent of students surveyed said the Government’s policy was critical to them enrolling, but these students were also more likely to drop out of the courses they were enrolled in and achieve lower grades,” Dr Reti says in reference to the recent Canterbury study.

Whelan is encouraged to see institutions carrying out research on the impact of the fees-free policy and hopes to see studies emerge.


  1. While students do drop out is it really because there is no “skin in the game”? and they are not prepared academically? or is it just because they want to study but fees free does not actually solve the problem of food on the table or rent for a bed?
    My personal experience is that student drop out is highest amongst those who just cannot find the balance
    of work/study time commitments because of financial pressures, followed by those with significant anxiety issues (mental health).
    Fees-free enables students to taste education at this level without a financial penalty is this its value?
    Fees-free may be more useful for middle-class parents who don’t want their offspring saddled with debt.

    I agree that support for students, while they are students, is vital for successful completion of courses be it academic, financial or wellness.


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