Today, Labour Leader Andrew Little announced what counts as radical tertiary education policy in this country – that 10 years from now, learners will be able to study for 3 years at university or polytech without paying fees. Phased in over a number of years, it will mean learners in 2025 will need to borrow around $20,000 less than learners do today – more, if we (safely) assume that it would be more expensive in 2025.
There’s no two ways about it – this would make a whopping difference to graduates as they embark on post-study life. Already a nightmare in parts of the country, the dream of purchasing a house will be that much more within reach than it is now. In truth, the gain would be marginal when compared to the pricing increases in the meantime, but we’ll take the wins where we can get them.
Any thinking that leaves our young people less encumbered by debt at the conclusion of their studies is to be applauded. Criticisms that this initiative would “achieve absolutely nothing” are misguided. It would have a benefit, alright. A more pertinent remark might be “there are better ways we could use the money”.
In a week when sex-for-rent arrangements have made the headlines, it is timely for us to consider whether the $1.2b a year might be better spent on assisting with learners’ living expenses. That we live in a country where our young people are selling their bodies to get by each week would not long ago have been the stuff of dystopian novels. The housing situation in Auckland is already of crisis proportions, with house prices soaring and rents chasing to keep up.
The reality is that most students are struggling week to week. Really struggling. This free education initiative, while worthy in and of itself, will do nothing whatsoever to alleviate that struggle. Statements that students will have no “skin in the game” if they don’t pay fees overlooks the fact that they already have to endure three years of financial hardship to get their degrees.
Finally, nothing in the announcement seems to encourage the tertiary sector to change the way it operates to drive costs down. A combination of reduced costs and measures that either free students up to make more money or increase the support available to them will have far-reaching impacts on our national capability and access to things like stable housing – and all the benefits that flow from that.
We need new thinking about higher education so that we move away from arguing over who should pay, to whether we are doing the right things and doing them the right way. Not to be ungrateful, but as with the arresting student loan defaulters issue, this policy announcement seems to be better politics than it is good policy. For sure, learners will benefit, but could we do better?