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.