After less than two full years of implementation, the Government’s first-year fees-free tertiary programme is set to lose $197 million of budget allocation, after being identified by the Government as a low-priority initiative.
In an effort to reduce spending prior to the upcoming Budget, the Government identified around $1 billion in areas of low-priority spending, after being assessed according to “effectiveness” and ‘alignment with the Government’s priorities.” Finance Minister Grant Robertson admitted to the Chamber of Commerce “one example of this was… spending on the fees-free programme due to enrolments not meeting initial forecasts.”
Inexorably, this has led to questions as to why Labour’s policy performed so poorly. “When you get a period of time when you have employment being very, very low, that traditionally coincides with lower enrolments, in particular in polytechs,” Robertson claimed. National’s tertiary education spokesperson Shane Reti has called the government to account for failing one of its key sectors, claiming “the Government has poorly allocated money in education and now it’s in a situation where teachers are engaging in the largest ever industrial action in New Zealand, and one of its key policies has fallen over.”
In Issue 3, Craccum reported the government’s intention for a reform of the national system of vocational education and training, with a proposal being submitted to merge the nation’s 16 polytechnic institutes into one. Grant Robertson has indicated that the funding extracted from the tertiary fees-free programme would be reinvested into the eventual implementation of this reform, identifying a need to “value apprenticeships, trades and workplace training more.” However, National’s Shane Reti believes that this is only ‘one bad policy propping up another’. “The Education Minister needs to urgently re-evaluate fees-free and at least delay the rushed reforms of the polytechnic sector.”
As of yet, no further decisions on the fate of the fees-free programme have been confirmed by the Government. However, opposing parties have taken the opportunity to criticize Labour on the failed policy. “It’s [only] paying the tuition of children in well-off families that would have gone to university anyway,” says ACT leader David Seymour, while National’s Shane Reti called the programme “a failure from the very start, with 2400 fewer students enrolling in tertiary education and training than a year ago.”
However, when asked if the scheme was a failure, Robertson said it was “far from it”; rather, it was “simply a recognition that not all of the money that was allocated for it was being used.”