Editorials question education policy

Labour’s free tertiary education policy has received some favourable coverage – see Anthony Robins’ Praise for Labour’s tertiary bombshell:

Although there have been predictable howls of outrage from the usual suspects, the media reaction to Labour’s bold tertiary education policy has been generally great.

But it has also been scrutinised and questioned in editorials at the Herald and Otago Daily Times.

NZ Herald: An expensive fix which has little purpose

The Labour Party has made the first delivery on its promise to produce bold new policy in 2016. Free tertiary education is a daring reversal of the thrust of educational and economic policy of the past 30 years.

The proposal is simple, radical and will be popular with tertiary students and their parents, and the parents of intending students, not to mention those who teach in universities, polytechnics and training institutes. It may be enough to give Labour the lift in the polls it sorely needs after so long in Opposition.

It’s purpose is to regain support for Labour. Beyond that?

A universal entitlement to three years’ free tertiary education has overwhelming public appeal. Whether it is in the public interest is another question. The policy is expensive: $2.5 billion when fully implemented.

That is a considerable lump of public spending. As always when something of this magnitude is proposed, we should not look at its merits in isolation. Governments do not have infinite budgets and there is a limit to the taxation an economy can provide and remain healthy.

Labour needs to be asked, is this the most worthwhile use of $2.5 billion? Is it even the most worthy use of funds allocated to education?

More broadly, extensions of paid parental leave, more generous welfare benefits and wage subsidies would have been expected to rank higher in Labour’s priorities.

Doubtless it will say it plans to boost all of these things, and more, but that only underlines questions about free tertiary education. With so many worthy calls on Labour’s compassion, why has it chosen to answer this one?

Another Standard author Tat Loo asked similar questions in So, how would you spend $1.2B per year?

The Herald continues:

Tertiary education has seen spectacular growth over that period, attracting foreign fee-paying students as well as meeting New Zealanders’ needs. Why change the funding system now?

Or to put it another way, what problem is this policy designed to fix? Labour’s leader presents it as an answer to the frequent and unpredictable career changes people will need in the workforce of the future. But this “future” has been present for many years now and there has been no sign the costs of retraining have become a problem.

The economy is strong in large part because public spending is under control. Expensive proposals that waste money purely for political gain could put the country’s prosperity in peril.

Obviously Labour will want some political gain from their policy but will the country gain from the money spent?

The ODT also looks at Free tertiary education.

Labour’s policy of three years’ free tertiary education for all has spiced up politics and created a clear point of difference from National.

It has, in these early days since leader Andrew Little’s announcement last Sunday, received a fair amount of support.

It is being seen as a definite move towards the left in a world where Jeremy Corbyn (Britain) and Bernie Sanders (United States) have gained traction.

It will, nonetheless, appeal to many across the centre of the political spectrum where Labour has lost to Prime Minister John Key’s pragmatism.

It is, in the end, the middle classes who are most likely to take up tertiary education in its various forms, just as they have gained from the costly interest-free student loans.

A middle class, centre voter target.

While the policy is to cover post-school education, including apprenticeships, it is not the poor and disadvantaged who will be the primary beneficiaries.

And that is receiving some critical attention from the left.

Whatever the politics of the matter, is it a good idea?

Overall, will it assist the country and its citizens sufficiently given the cost?

Will it really help New Zealand cope with the challenges of a world where change is accelerating?

Is it the best way to spend $1.2 billion a year, or whatever the final cost will be.

The Herald put the cost at $2.5 billion.

There must also be doubts about the price tag being limited to $1.2billion.

For a start, it is clear extra spending on free fees will have to be matched by extra institutional funding for increased demand.

And also more uptake of education because it is free. It could become a hobby option for retired baby boomers.

It is also true the current system of part-payment – the Government still pays the majority share of most courses – focuses the mind.

Not only are students likely to give more consideration to the value of their courses to them, but it also means more accountability from teachers.

Students paying for studies have proved much less likely to put up with second-rate teaching or second-rate programmes.

Labour have introduced this policy well out from next year’s election. This will give them plenty of time to explain and refine the policy, and to respond to criticisms.

But having committed to an expensive policy already they will have to be careful about what else they offer the voters. Their fiscal credibility can’t afford too many expensive promises.


Leave a comment


  1. Kevin

     /  3rd February 2016

    Typical Standard author. Make things up and not have to provide any evidence – unlike anybody Prentice doesn’t agree with. If it was you or me saying the media has been generally unfavourable we’d be demanded proof in the form of documented evidence, witnessed by the full council of theUN, and signed by the Pope.

  2. Pantsdownbrown

     /  3rd February 2016

    Levels of govt funding towards higher education/trade training should be based on job demand for that particular degree/trade. Higher education should never be ‘free’ (no such thing as ‘free’ education) but again the level of interest paid should be scaled depending on how much demand there is for the degree/trade, how long a person stays in the country after training etc

    Untargeted throwing of billions of dollars is not the answer.

    • Kevin

       /  3rd February 2016

      The problem is that it’s very difficult to predict the future. For example one year there may be a massive shortage of lawyers and then three years later the sharemarket crashes and five hundred graduates are competing for one position.

      In my opinion things like funding apprenticeships where the apprentice is guaranteed a full time job at the end of the apprenticeship, and subsidising university courses where the student must achieve at least an 80% pass rate to receive funding, are better. The reason for the latter is not because it leads to more employment, but because it increases the intelligence of the nation as a whole – and that’s something you can’t put a price on.

      • Pantsdownbrown

         /  3rd February 2016

        True to a point but a good start would be reducing the % of student loan support for all the courses which are basically no more than a ‘hobby’ with no-to-low chance of work opportunities (the arts, history etc etc).

        From a 2012 Herald on Sunday column;

        “One expert says much of what passes for school or even university education would be better suited to after-school activities. Professor Jacqueline Rowarth of Waikato University’s management school said New Zealanders weren’t paid well for tertiary qualifications and thousands of students were enrolling in expensive creative arts courses that won’t help them get jobs”.

        “Rowarth said too many people were going to university. About half dropped out and still more were left with tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt and no job. “They’re sold a crock by people telling them to follow their passion. We fund an awful lot of peculiar courses.”

        “That was because people enrolled in courses they would enjoy, she said, so universities got funding for them and put more time into seeing how many more enjoyable subjects they could build up”.

        • kittycatkin

           /  3rd February 2016

          Another crock is letting some students in with lower marks-namely Maori and Pasifika. The result is inevitable, they can’t do the work any more than I could do a maths degree with my school marks in that subject, and they have to drop out, This PCism is setting people up to fail, and is being kind to be cruel, rather than the other way around. It also sends a very false message that they don’t need to work as hard….and insults the ones who succeed by their own cleverness and hard work.

      • kittycatkin

         /  3rd February 2016

        I agree to some extent, but there can never be guarantees. The building industry may slump for reasons beyond anyone’s control.There will always be some work for plumbers-but in a depression, people won’t be putting in new bathrooms and loos. I am not sure that students achieving higher marks increases the intelligence of the nation as a whole. My own knowledge can’t help someone living at the other end of the country.

        I would have to say that I have never been asked what marks I had in either school or university qualifications-all that slog in some courses and I might as well have cruised through as I did in others ! 🙂

        • kittycatkin

           /  3rd February 2016

          I was agreeing with Kevin, but Pants’ reply came in between.

          • Pantsdownbrown

             /  3rd February 2016

            Essentially we can agree that Labour’s policy actually attempts to fix a problem that doesn’t exist or won’t exist in the future.


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