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Fast Free-for-All in Tertiary

Stuart Middleton


24 October 2017

Hey wait! Quick isn’t good. Right is good. Is it right to rush headlong into a free-fees tertiary regime? It seems OK to abolish National Standards without knowing what is to be put in its place so perhaps it is OK to abandon fees without knowing how it is to be done and who should get most benefit!

But ideology is a funny thing which has a logic all of its own. Back in the 1980s the ideology of an unfettered free market drove a wide range of political Principles such as freedom, equity and open access all critical to a high performing education system were less important than other considerations.

A set of briefing papers to the incoming Minister of Education in 1987 was prepared by the New Zealand Treasury and published with a touch of grandeur. This was an early and key outline of the view that post-compulsory education was a private gain and not a public good. The government’s contribution was to provide allowances and a loans scheme which gave students the cash to purchase education and training from the Government.

Now the political whim is to reverse that situation and over a period of seven years, students in post-compulsory education and training will be free of fees again. But to achieve equity in education it is often critical that different groups of different people are treated differently. This free-fees development has all the look of a policy that will not be targeted well if at all. Rather than simply say that the fees must go eventually, there is here an opportunity to fine tune provision in ways that respond to a range of issues and allow the post-secondary education and training sector to make marked improvements to levels of equity and access and to its contribution to communities and the national good.

Clearly the staggered approach which sees a start of 1-year-fees-free, then to 2-years-fees-free and, finally, to three-years-fees-free, is governed by fiscal considerations – there isn’t the money to achieve it in one go. But perhaps that is because of the assumption that everyone undertaking post-secondary education and training should have access to a fees-free pathway. As this policy is further developed prior to implementation, it could become a more sophisticated, nuanced and targeted policy than was the simple rhetoric of the simple election campaign announcement.

As part of that development I would like to first see evidence that there is a body of people who are qualified to enter tertiary education and training but are unable to do so because of financial hardship. I would also like to see an analysis of the ways in which provision can be directed towards skills shortages and the needs of business industry and commerce.

I would suggest that getting more people qualified to enter tertiary education and training in general is a higher priority than immediately rewarding all those who are already qualified to start next year. Attending to the stockpile of talent that sits at great cost to us all, untapped and wasting away, is a higher priority that firing money that those who have over the past 20 years shown that they can get to tertiary and indeed do so in spite of the debt incurred.

This will require a willingness to address in a serious and meaningful way the issue of the NEETs pile of people which is, often at no fault of the individual, such a dead weight on productivity, social costs, poverty levels and the well-being of families.

I would suggest that targeting fees-free initiatives towards Maori and Pasifika students continues to be a higher imperative and will continue to be while participation rates are inequitable and parity of outcomes not yet achieved.

Targeting a fees-free initiative towards First-in-Family Students entering post-secondary education and training would have a major impact on families – the evidence is clear, the first-in-family member who completes postsecondary education and training qualification influences and transforms the family as other family members follow in those family-first footsteps.


Currently there is a range of initiatives in place for fees-free postsecondary education. There are learnings in this for further developments and it would be a lost opportunity if they went unheeded. Targeting areas of skill shortages both by skill areas and by qualification levels would be a sound response to the current needs of business, industry and commerce and might focus on the serious skill issues for entry level and middle level workers.

A significant number of people probably cannot afford to contemplate post-secondary education and training simply because their schooling has left them ill-equipped and to pass through the gate to tertiary and probably resource poor in facing the requisite commitments implied. Creating a fees-free pathway specifically for such people, many of whom are headed towards joining the NEETs, must be a top priority.  The removal of the either/or relationship between training and benefits would be a good start.

So, the point of this is that there might be a set of principles that will produce a greatly more targeted policy in this area than the simple roll-it-out-as-we find-the-cash approach proposed. Policies that are not well-targeted might be thought to achieve change but they seldom produce impact.

Along the way much more could be achieved. Simply transplanting free-fees intro the current postsecondary education and training sector will be great for some but overall, a disappointment once again, for many. And a lost opportunity.


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  1. Jim Doyle Jim Doyle

    I think I’ve expressed a view on this before. This policy needs to be targeted. There will be huge waste if not. Thousands of young people will goof around in (mainly university) for a year and then leave with no financial consequences. Then there will be thousands more who will opt for a qualification of little vocational value because there is little to lose, at least in the short term.

    I would target the policy towards obvious skills shortages and apply two additional conditions:

    1. They must complete the qualification within a reasonable timeframe
    2. They must work in NZ in the specified skills shortage sector for a specified period

    Upon complying with those conditions, the graduate will have their outstanding fee debt written off.

    I think the government’s policy was a case of ‘good politics’ but ‘bad policy’.

  2. Gus Gus

    Good on you Stuart,
    Focus on Māori, Pasifika and Under 25 year students is a must. Educational parity has to be a key target for any Government. I’m heartened by Labour addressing skills and training gaps but that investment must be targeted to those who need it most.

  3. Ian Hall Ian Hall

    Well, Stuart, you are right on the money as so often and Jim Doyle is as eloquent as ever too. It’s really tragic to see so much money being committed to such a dumb and ill-considered policy. I agree with much that you say about better targeting and I would also place much more emphasis on encouraging people (of all ages) to consider the areas where skills are so desperately needed in our economy. The mind boggles too at the practicality of implementation next academic year. I gather that students are to be reimbursed directly (presumably on proof of academic progress?) so those attending institutions with higher fees will simply get their money back. I did ask Chris Hipkins and he assured me that there would be no cap, so are institutions now expected to enrol all eligible first-year students who pitch up? And, I feel sorry for the innovative SIT who have presumably lost their market advantage.

  4. Paul Paul

    As always Stuart, a well thought out piece. My own thoughts are we only truly value what we pay for, and I’d hate to see an investment as large as is going to be required here frittered. Perhaps a better option would be to reward success via reimbursement? As you say there are already a range of solutions in play and I’m not sure we have taken all the learning available from these yet to just roll things out cart blanch. I’d hate to see the current Māori and Pasifika Trades Training initiative canabilised to fund this policy, indeed MPTT needs strengthening and extending to diploma level with thought also being given to Industry Training.

  5. Kelvin Duncan Kelvin Duncan

    I am very glad that I am no longer involved in higher education. What a chaotic year 2018 may well be.
    Free education through first degree is a great idea BUT there are so many potential problems (funding, space, teaching capacity, resources) that it is hard to see how the tertiary institutions will cope.

  6. Mike Hadley Mike Hadley

    Comments from Stuart, Jim & Ian are absolutely correct in their own context. The free fees should be targeted towards students who are unlikely to gain access to higher tertiary education including a bachelor degree, vocational sub degree qualifications and apprenticeships. Most commentators only talk about university pathways but the stats reveal that only 30% of year 9 cohorts enrol in degrees or applied degrees (polytechnics). There’s so much more to discuss in the vocational sector which is always overlooked. Hardship scholarships would have been the obvious approach especially to the left wing constituency.

    This policy is an election winning headline that won’t improve access or outcomes and is an opportunity lost that will never be repealed.

    Mike Hadley
    Director, Avonmore Tertiary Institute

  7. Bo Gardner Bo Gardner

    This is spot on. I ran a successful PTE for a number of years which delivered training and employment support services to the very NEET people mentioned. These are a difficult bunch to help – many have a long history of failure in education, come from backgrounds that are incredibly tough, their self-confidence is shot and they have a very bleak view of traditional learning. They need help but often have none of the family or social support necessary to successfully undertake tertiary education or training. They need special attention and I’m afraid throwing dollars at the problem in this way will not resolve the issue. We achieved very good outcomes both in terms of qualification completions, but more importantly in helping them find employment, so it can be done. For me the key to helping NEET people is to shift their focus beyond the training or education, which terrifies them, to the rewards at the end – a job, independence, personal achievement and the pride that comes with that. Let’s hope the policy in action is differentiated and focussed on useful outcomes not just bums on seats.

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