Jacinda Ardern visits her old university, The University of Waikato during campaign trail. Photo / Nick Reed

The excitement was palpable as Jacinda Ardern arrived on campus. Bill English had been warmly received weeks earlier, and Winston Peters had recently entertained a crowd. There was something different about this visit. Andrew Little had jumped overboard and suddenly all bets were off.

“Jacindamania” wasn’t so much a cult of fawning students as piqued interest in the new possibilities of the campaign. There was a new intensity in the debate about the future of our country. Waikato students wanted to be part of it.

Jacinda still appeared to be getting used to arriving in a Crown car. She greeted me with a warm handshake and her signature smile. I explained the students’ union had set up a small stand for her on the Village Green. I’m not sure which of us was more shocked by just how many students had packed out the space.

Students were excited because the election had become a real contest. We had the chance to strongly debate the challenges of our generation. The environment, mental health, children living below the poverty line. This was the time to discuss big ideas.

What I didn’t see was a single student lining up for an election bribe or government handout. The talking points that most engaged the throng of students were about how politicians could build a better country for everyone, not serve our immediate personal interests.

Young New Zealanders have strong values. Taking personal responsibility in a country where you can get ahead under your own steam and be rewarded for achievement. Promoting “the utter integrity of the individual person, their importance, and our obligation to them to ensure that they can realise their aspirations and their full humanity”, as Bill English put it in his valedictory statement.

These values are the reason Labour’s fees-free policy was one of the least convincing elements of Jacinda’s pitch to my classmates. The very people whose votes Labour was trying to buy weren’t convinced by such a crude ploy.

For each of us listening to Labour’s cynical lure, we had at least one friend who wasn’t there. People like my high school friend Bradley working in truck parts, or my flatmate Mason in construction. Under National, Bradley and Mason would keep more of their income by way of tax relief. Under Labour, they would instead fund someone like me getting degrees in law and economics.

Taxpayers were already paying around 75 per cent of the cost of tertiary education – our interest-free student loans were only for the remaining 25 per cent. Now the Bradleys and Masons would be paying 100 per cent for someone like me to get a relatively high paying job. How would that provide an equal opportunity to get ahead, and how was that taking responsibility for our personal development?

We all wanted a world-class education and the knowledge and opportunities that flow from that. New Zealand was already spending around double the OECD average proportion of its tertiary budget on student support like tuition fee subsidies. This restricts universities’ capacity to invest in the latest technology and ground-breaking research to remain among the best in the world.

Fees-free reeked of a clumsy idea, hurriedly cobbled together. As Jacinda worked the mandatory selfie line and returned to the car, she may have missed the questions that lingered on campus:

“Why pay rich students’ fees when we were talking about needing more money for impoverished children?”

“Why isn’t it for the last year, as an incentive to stay?”

“Why not spend it on better academic and mental health support to improve achievement?”

“Won’t it make it even harder to get more builders to fix the housing shortage?”

Universities NZ are labelling the policy “grossly inequitable”, and the Government has admitted it has no clue whether applicants have been to university before.

The Waikato students who packed out the Village Green late last year wanted the next government to seize the opportunity of a growing economy to make a meaningful difference for those who needed it most. Perhaps it was an attempted magic trick; to woo the crowd by making $340 million disappear, every year. Either way, we all expected, and deserve, so much more than a clumsy, expensive, untargeted train wreck.

William Lewis is policy chair of NZ Young Nats and a former president of the Waikato Students’ Union

Source: NZ Herald

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