Tuesday, 14 May 2019

The Labour-led Government's Fee-Free Policy for Tertiary Education

Is Labour about to renege on its fee-free policy for tertiary education? Looks like it might happen at some point during this or the next term (if the Government is re-elected), and here is why it would be wrong for it to do so.

I'm currently updating my research on tertiary education policy by reference to the Government's Budget 2019 which will be made public on May 30th. You may remember Labour's election promise that involved "Accelerating the three years' free policy, starting with one year fees free full-time equivalent for everyone starting tertiary education or training for the first time from 1 January 2018, and extending this to three years’ free by 2024." 

Yet today according to a Stuff article, "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." https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/112710129/low-enrolments-sees-200m-clawed-back-from-fees-free-scheme?fbclid=IwAR2ciEZYP4X5tk6wMRcn57H1XmyfYESjRqMc-d9YnV8BxlYy8FynwLii8M0

The justification of this is supposedly based on 'big data' that indicates that there hasn't been the expected increase in students enrolled in tertiary education. This is contestable, with some data suggesting it has helped to arrest the decline in student participation, but more fundamentally it ignores the basic fact that during the period from 2005 to 2017, when fees increased substantially and there were large cuts to student support, there was a very large decline in domestic student participation in tertiary education (partially offset by a substantial increase in international student numbers during the same period).

To be absolutely clear: rising fees, debt, and declining student support had the following effect: With respect to domestic participation, ‘In 2016, 12 percent of the population aged 16 to 64 years participated in tertiary education, compared to 16 percent in 2006’ (MoE, 2017a: 4). In a related data series, the total participation rate of domestic students declined from 12.5 percent of the total population in 2008, the year that the Fifth National Government was elected, to 9.4 percent in 2016. The total number of domestic tertiary students enrolled in public institutions declined by 94,031 students from 452,631 in 2005, to 418,319 in 2008 to 358,600 in 2015 (Shaw, 2017: 19).

It is entirely reasonable to contend that making the first three years of tertiary education fee-free and substantially increasing student support would eventually lead to a large increase in student participation. The counter-argument is very weak but backed by Treasury, Business NZ, the New Zealand Initiative, and the National Party. Will Labour cave or honour its election promise?
For deeper analysis (and references) see my article: "Neoliberalism's War on New Zealand's Universities" in New Zealand Sociology 33(2) 2018: 9-39.