Tertiary Education Free-for-all!

Stuart Middleton
EdTalkNZ

30 August 2017

WOW! Free first year for tertiary education scaling up to three free years. This is a significant policy! If Labour succeeds in becoming the Government this should make a huge change.

But wait! Do we really know the extent of the problem that financial hardship which it is claimed stops people from going to tertiary? How many young people are qualified to go to tertiary but are unable to get there simply because of financial issues? Most of the students interviewed by the media who attest to financial hardship seem to be uniformly pakeha and, let’s not forget this, they are already at university. Addressing financial hardship for them is not about access it is about improved living condition and experiences. In terms of parity of outcomes and equity of access – is financial hardship a fact or an untested assumption?

In am aware of studies which suggest that in the southern region of Auckland by and large, those who are qualified to go to university, do get there. Many institutions have programmes for financial aid, for scholarships and so on. Youth Guarantee places in tertiary treat the right to a free education up to the age of 19 years more fairly than used to be the case.

But I would expect that if the financial issues of going to tertiary were examined with a little more granularity it would show that those not qualified to go to university include the greatest number of students who face financial hurdles is accessing tertiary educationof different kinds.

The media seems unable to reflect the fact that “tertiary”, as the word is used in New Zealand, covers a range of post-secondary opportunities and experiences not just going to university. The range of these distinctive tertiary pathways includes Wānanga, Institutes of Technology and Polytechnics, and Private Training Organisations. And tertiary could also be taken to include in different ways, the ITO’s who do engage in training in a different ways. And there might be a case to argue for those undertaking apprenticeships and other forms of in-work, post-secondary training to get some benefit from the no fees model?

But the real cost related to the post-secondary environment is not the cost to the students who successfully enter a tertiary institution but the cost to those young New Zealanders who leave school inadequately prepared for the next step. They still continue to give up before the finishing post and many students stumble across the line then fall. Failing is failing at whatever level and however it is funded. The cost of failure to a student is not the cost of the fee but a huge, damaging, and enduring cost to their lives and their families.

Secondary schools have responded well to the NCEA Level 2 Targets and to the opportunities gathered under the Youth Guarantee policy in Secondary / Tertiary Programmes (such as Trades Academies, Dual Pathways and ventures like the MIT Tertiary High School). Indeed, some schools have noted the mutual benefit to both sides of the provider relationship of such programmes.

If failure remains an issue in schooling then It seems odd to me that there is a fervent desire among the policy developers who propose no tertiary fees but with the same enthusiasm propose to remove national standards. An education system that is performing well has to do so at every level. Early Childhood Education, Primary schooling, secondary schooling and tertiary education all face challenges of student failure and disengagement and all have a responsibility to see that they did what was required of them to prepare students for life. Secondary and tertiary operate in an environment that has increasing accountability measures. So too should primary schooling.

Equity of access in education is not the ability to get through the gates of the academy, rather it is the quality of life and the opportunities that result from an excellent education. On this measure, we have some way to go!

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