Fees-free policy “not a failure” but students threaten backlash

The Government has gotten themselves into a tricky situation with their handling of the news that their tertiary education fees-free scheme has run well under budget.

The scheme was rushed into place as soon as Labour took over the Government in late 2017.

Criticism has stung the government who are quite defensive.

RNZ:  Fees-free tertiary policy not a failure, Grant Robertson says

The Finance Minister insists the fees-free tertiary policy is not a failure, despite reallocating a sizeable part of the funding to polytechs due to low demand.

The policy – a Labour Party campaign promise – has been in place since the start of 2018 and pays for the first year of full-time study for school leavers, and for those who have done fewer than six months’ tertiary study in the past.

Initial estimates were it would cost about $350 million a year, but now about $197m (over four years) will be rediverted due to fewer students taking advantage of the policy than expected.

The government budgeted for 80,000 students when it first launched the policy, but that was revised down to 50,000 once it became apparent the uptake wouldn’t be that high.

In a pre-Budget speech to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said ministers had identified about $1 billion of spending that was no longer a priority.

“One example of this was underspending on the fees-free programme due to enrolments not meeting initial forecasts. This funding … is now to be redirected to the implementation of the reform of vocational education.”

He told reporters afterwards it was “far from” an admission of failure.

“Tens of thousands of New Zealanders have benefited from this scheme, this is simply a recognition that not all of the money that was allocated for it is being used.

“And now we’ve got the opportunity to put that towards a vocational education system that’s delivering people with the skills that they need.”

But the government could have done better communicating who was eligible for a year’s fees-free, said Mr Robertson.

They could also have done a better job communicating the under-performance. They have left themselves trying to defend after the news came out.

And diverting the funds rather than communicating better to prospective students may also be a problem.

RNZ: Coalition faces ‘student backlash’ if no-fee policy revised

A student leader says many students are only at her university because of the new no-fees scheme and has warned the government not to ditch its policy.

Victoria University Students Association president Tamatha Paul warned the Labour coalition not to backtrack on its 2017 election promises to implement the scheme, or face a backlash by students.

Under the scheme, the first year of full-time study for school leavers is paid for, and those who have committed fewer than six months’ tertiary study in the past also qualify.

Labour’s campaign policy in 2017 was to introduce fees-free at the start of 2018, then gradually extend it to two years’ free in 2021 and provide three years’ free in 2024.

Ms Paul told Morning Report the scheme was proving beneficial to students.

“We know that this policy is being extremely helpful,” she said.

“We’re having conversations with students consistently, who are saying they wouldn’t have come to the university if it wasn’t for this policy, especially students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds and especially those getting scholarships who are now dedicated that money towards accommodation and living costs, instead of tertiary fees.”

So some skilful communications may be in order here.

 

 

Low uptake on fees-free scheme, could be scaled back

In 2017 Labour campaigned on there being a number of crises that needed urgent attention after ‘nine years of neglect’. It was surprising that one of the first policies they piled money into was something that seemed less urgent than housing, homelessness, poverty, mental health – they rushed in a tertiary education free fees scheme so that it would be in place by the start of 2018.

It turns out that the uptake hasn’t been anywhere near as high as predicted, so the scheme won’t cost as much as was budgeted. But the Government also seems to be considering scaling back the scheme to divert  budgeted money to more urgent needs (the so-called crises remain largely unaddressed).

Stuff:  Low enrolments sees $200m clawed back from fees-free scheme

The Government is stripping nearly $200 million from its controversial fees-free policy, after the number of people taking up the offer of a year of free tertiary education was below expectations.

Although he denied disappointment with the policy, Finance Minister Grant Robertson appeared to leave the door open to cancelling an extension of the scheme to further years of free education in 2021.

At a speech to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce in Parliament on Tuesday, Robertson said that as part of the upcoming Budget, the Government had identified around $1 billion of the lowest priority initiatives to cancel.

As part of this, $197m allocated for a year of tertiary education was being redirected to changes being made in the vocational education reforms.

Of course if they don’t have to spend everything the budgeted for for fees-free that money will be able to be used elsewhere (if they don’t want to cut government expenditure).

But what is apparent here is that a scheme rushed through as a high priority in 2017 now seems to be regarded as ‘lowest priority’.

Robertson denied the move was an acknowledgement of problems with the policy. The policy assumed a significant uplift in enrolments, which had not materialised. Robertson put this down to the strong labour market which made job opportunities good.

“When you get a period of time when you have employment being very, very low, that traditionally coincides with lower enrolments, in particular in polytechs,” Robertson told reporters, adding that people still had the option of taking up the policy if they chose.

Robertson maintained that it still remained Labour Party policy to extend the scheme for a second and eventually a third year of free education, but appeared to open the door to that happening.

“We’ll take a look at the extensions nearer the time, but I still believe the principle of making sure that people can carry on with study at university or apprenticeships  or work place training is really, really important.”

The plan for a second year of free education did not take place until the next term of Government so there was “plenty of time between now and then to make that call”.

So Robertson certainly seems uncommitted to expanding the scheme as planned.

Robertson’s pre-budget speech to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce:  Wellbeing Budget to tackle long-term challenges