Labour’s Three Free Years Of Tertiary Education – A Critical Appraisal


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There’s no denying the palpable enthusiasm around Labour’s recently announced free three years’ of tertiary education policy. While there are some issues with the policy (including its glacial pace of rollout that won’t fully deliver for another decade, its non-accessibility to people looking to retrain, and the lack of full funding for skilled and needed degrees like medicine) … it’s overall a pretty decent start.

But what’s got me slightly annoyed at present is the number of pro-Labour people I’ve sighted on social media claiming this is some sort of ground-breaking never-before-seen-in-New-Zealand-Political-History moment.

It isn’t.

We used to have free tertiary education in this country – and not just for three years, either.

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What happened to it? Well, a certain fellow who’s drawing a bit of opprobium at the moment called Phil Goff who was Labour’s Tertiary Education Minister at the time … went and started charging fees for higher learning.

One wonders whether Goff will be allowed to cross the floor and vote against Labour’s planned free tertiary initiative (should he still be in Parliament by the time it’s rolled out) on the basis of his own previous record on this issue, as well.

Anyway. Progressively-inclined parties never really gave up the fight to fix what Labour had done. I’m pretty sure The Alliance made noises about this sort of reformism as part of its snap-back against Rogernomics in the 1990s, while in more recent times both New Zealand First and the Green Party have advocated solidly for a return to the zero-fees model.

NZ First’s embracing of the abolition of tertiary education fees holds a particular point of pride in my memory, as it was one of my first ‘back-room’ political skirmishes to get something passed.

However, there are two key areas where I definitely think Labour’s missed the mark.

The first issue is how little Labour appears to be ready to do to help those present-day (and former) students who’re even now groaning under the weight of serious student-loan debt. It’s great that Labour has joined NZ First and The Greens in wanting to do something about the ruinous burden of tertiary fees which cause students to go into debt in the first place … but this does nothing for the more than seven hundred thousand New Zealanders who have a student loan presently, nor the $15 billion in debt which they currently owe.

New Zealand First, by contrast, *does* have policy in this area. It’s called Dollar-for-Dollar, and it helps those students and graduates who were unfortunate enough to be born in the quarter century wherein NZ decided inexplicably to abandon free tertiary education. How does it work? It’s a debt write-off scheme. For every dollar you put in in repayments, the state matches that dollar with one of its own. This incentivizes quick repayment, gets rid of a large chunk of “bad debt”, and does something for those present and previous borrowers who’re often neglected in the mad scramble-a-rush to do things for as-yet the unenrolled (or perhaps even born) masses.

If Labour is serious about helping Kiwis who’ve been disadvantaged by its previous imposition of fees for tertiary education, it needs to consider implementing something similar.

The second area where there’s a clear gap in Labour’s tertiary policy concerns the notion of a Universal Student Allowance. Living costs can represent a serious barrier and impediment to pursuing tertiary education for thousands of potential and present students; with thousands more going into debt, forgoing food, or otherwise detrimentally altering their lives in order to make ends meet while studying. While there is a student allowance available at present for some students, the way accession is set up at the moment it’s all too easy for many to fall through the cracks of the eligibility criterion.

Rolling out a universal student allowance would help to support students while they study, in ways that simply reducing the amount they have to borrow to fund their course fees simply wouldn’t. We already feel quite comfortable, as a nation, paying the unemployed to survive (and look for work) – why not do the same for students who are seeking to better themselves and their future earning potential.

Now once again, this is an area where Labour’s shortfall is not shared by other parties. New Zealand First has advocated for a Universal Student Allowance consistently right the way since our founding in 1993. The Green Party has also been pretty solid on it. Labour, to its credit, did flirt with the idea when attempting to secure a fourth term in 2008, but the policy appears to have fallen from favour since then, and was not part of its 2014 (or subsequent) platform.

In sum, then, Labour’s announcement of three years’ free tertiary education by 2025 isn’t quite the unprecedented ‘game-changer’ some are making it out to be. It’s a good first move, certainly. And while, on its own, it obviously loses out by comparison to other parties’ actual free tertiary education policies, for the next generation it nonetheless represents a considerable improvement.

But if we’re serious about fixing the way we do tertiary education in this country and restoring the standards of equity, accessibility and affordability which we once enjoyed, then more needs to be done.

I look forward to upcoming policy announcements from Labour which serve to rectify this situation, and certainly hope they take appropriate heed and inspiration from the already-extant policy of their potential coalition partners in New Zealand First and The Greens.

Because we can’t afford to let another generation go through the same thing and come out owning fifteen billion.


  1. At the political level I think it’s quite good – like Helen’s free student loans policy it will help lock in the youth vote. It will also get support from all the ‘luvvies’ in academia because they stand to profit from it.

    At the financial level it’s appalling. Just like Helen’s handout to students, it is ruinously expensive and this must be paid for with higher taxes or cuts in other services.

    “When robbing Peter to pay Paul, you can always be sure of the vote of Paul”

    I think it’s high time lists were made of preferred courses and non-preferred courses. With things like medicine, science, accounting and engineering in the preferred category and ‘Gender Studies’, Law and Media Studies in the non-preferred. So that the government can cut funding into the non-preferred category because it adds so little real value.

    • ^ Typical neoliberal thinking.
      They demand to know the cost of things but have no care whatsoever for their value to society.

      • “^ Typical neoliberal thinking.”

        Yes, turning universities into job factories is ideological.

        Any university with half a brain would know that feminism is currently experiencing a mainstream revival – some call it the ‘4th wave’. If universities had some foresight they’d bring back their Gender Studies departments due to market demand.

        Gender Studies departments have already been dismantled, or at least reduced, in most NZ universities. But it’s a good dog-whistle for the ‘Waitakere man’.

        The job factories logic is very Fox News-ish. Very boring. A degree in Media Studies would help some to understand how our STEM obsession is constructed.

    • “When robbing Peter to pay Paul”
      No-one is being robbed. It’s in the interest of everyone to have subsequent generations well-educated and to pay the taxes (according to one’s ability to do so) to ensure it happens.
      It’s called a properly functioning society – and properly functioning societies are quite expensive to maintain, But no-one is being robbed.
      Lose the neo-liberal tripe mate, or sound forever like a selfish prat.

  2. Yes it seems a good plan that needs to be re-introduced as the way forward because politics changes every day and some policies get buried and need restoring so NZ first has always promoted forward thinking policies and labour have returned it to the election cycle to grab support again.

    Good move as it has made National look stupid as Steven Joyce-Lord Haw Haw the second stuffed it up by pouring vociferous comments about free higher education so this makes National look rather stupid now.

    Well done our side.

    • Put it into context please. The introduction of GST put tax on everything and lets not forget that the 5th National government under dishonest John broke its promise and hiked up GST by 2.5% To add, user charges were introduced in universities for the first time under the 4th National government.

      4th Labour government
      In tertiary education, the Fourth Labour Government introduced charges equaling 10 percent of tuition costs, although students on low incomes were compensated with targeted allowances.[6]
      Public funding of day care was increased substantially and maternity and paternity leave were extended (feminists inside and outside the New Zealand Labour Party helped bring about these developments).[14]
      Improvements in education were made, as demonstrated by the expansion and strengthening of early childhood education, significant increases of teaching staff at kindergarten, enhancement of teacher education, attention to special education and support for Taha Maori, and funding for a measure which allowed for the universalisation of three year integrated childcare and kindergarten teacher training.[5]
      The Education Amendment (No.2) Act 1987 amended the 1964 Education Act so that persons with special educational needs (whether by reason of disability or otherwise)had the same rights to enrol and receive education at institutions established under the Act as persons without such needs.[5]
      Multi-cultural education was encouraged via increased levels of recruitment of teachers from minority cultures, and this policy resulted in a considerable increase in the number of applicants accepted for training as well as in more minority teachers for primary, secondary, and multicultural schools.[5]
      Access to extramural study was significantly expanded.[5]
      The fee for overseas students was reduced from $1,500 to $1,000 in 1984 and then abolished in 1987.[5]
      Vocational opportunities for school leavers were significantly expanded, as characterised by the merging of various vocational programmes into a single Training Assistance Programme (1985).[5]
      Early childhood teacher training was extended.[5]
      The University Entrance (UE) examination was abolished, which had a far-reaching significance for the education of students in the senior forms of secondary schools. “Instead of being seen solely as preparation for university study, the courses leading to Sixth Form Certificate (SFC) provided a wider and more general education. This award more satisfactorily accommodated the diverse needs of students in Form 6, and thus recognised the changing, broader composition of the student population at that level”.[5]
      In 1985, the National Film Library initiated “a video cassette loan service alongside its traditional 16 mm film services.* This measure provided schools with “access to the wide range of programmes being produced in video and television format”.[5]
      Funding was allocated to early childhood education, which allowed for the universalisation of three year integrated childcare and kindergarten teacher training.[5]
      The Education Amendment (No.2) Act 1987 altered the 1964 Education Act so that persons with special educational needs (whether by reason of disability or otherwise) had the same rights to enrol and receive education at institutions established under the Act as persons without such needs.[5]
      Four-minute reading and reading recovery, the teaching procedure which reduces the incidence of reading failure among 6-year-old children, was extended to a further 200 schools between 1985 and 1986.[5]
      Five new Kura Kaupapa schools were commissioned as a means of raising Maori educational achievement (1990).[13]
      Spending on full-time primary, secondary, polytechnic and area sector school teaching/tutoring/teachers college positions was increased (1987).[13]
      Spending on preschool education was increased (1989).[13]
      Extra funding was provided for the mainstreaming of special education students (1990).[13]

      • further context, the gst relates to food, energy, utilities, vehicle registration etc etc.

        i get the 4th labour govt did some good stuff around education but gst is a stinker.

        hitting the poor disproportionally harder than the wealthy.
        but i reckon you already know that.

        • That’s what I meant when I posted that GST put tax on everything, and sure it’s a stinker.

          “hitting the poor disproportionately harder than the wealthy” is something that each and every National government have done when Kiwis stupidly elect them to office….sure, I know that.

  3. +1 Curwen Ares Rolinson.

    Great points. A very well written article.
    Hopefully, more well thought out and doable policies will get rolled out by Labour and other progressive parties in the coming 22 months before the next election.

    You should stand for election. You will make a good MP.

  4. This is the first part of the post-school policy, not the whole thing. There will be more that will fill in the gaps. But we will only be promising only what we can actually deliver. The small parties can promise utopia knowing they won’t be the ones having to balance the books (or win 40% or more of the vote).

    • Agree Chris. Labour put out another great plan, which is clearly just a part of something bigger, and everyone goes nuts.

    • “The small parties can promise utopia knowing they won’t be the ones having to balance the books (or win 40% or more of the vote).”

      No Chris. That’s some Paddy Gower logic. Parties like the Greens, MANA and NZ First could afford to implement all of their policies, but they have to do it while Labour panders to the middle and upper class.

      Suggesting smaller parties ‘promise utopia’ is unfair and will not endear you to potential voters. Even MANA, who offer the most radial form of redistribution will be able to afford what they put forward – just look at what they’d redistribute from those who plundered our collective wealth since ’84. Same too for the Greens.

      Please don’t label those to the left of you as utopians who can’t keep their promises. They’re representing your party’s roots. Step up and shut up. You earn our respect if your policies deserve them. You earn nothing by mocking those who are speaking for us.

      • Suggesting smaller parties ‘promise utopia’ is unfair and will not endear you to potential voters.

        It’s also petty and unnecessary to his point.

      • It’s of no disrespect to the other parties, who I work with all of the time. On education issues, the Greens, NZ First and Labour share most of the same views. But you’re missing the wider point, we need to get 50% of the vote between us, so that means Labour has to appeal to a broader constituency than the smaller parties do, and yes, that will have an impact on the commitments that we make.

        • “It’s of no disrespect to the other parties”

          No, it is disrespectful. You don’t get to decide if I’m offended by saying smaller parties “promise utopia”. I and many others put a lot of time and effort into smaller parties because they have policies that you should. When Labour has been in bed with the millionaires, me and my friends have been getting into a lifetime of debt just to get educated. Now you tell us that the policies we want and deserve are utopian? That couldn’t really be more disrespectful. Labour has been neoliberal since I was 3 years old. You have a lot of work to do to make up for that, and our support will only be given if you break from neoliberalism and give us some ‘utopian promises’ (or what we call representing Labour’s roots).

          “On education issues, the Greens, NZ First and Labour share most of the same views.”

          Maybe primary and secondary education, but the Greens and Labour are not close on tertiary education. Labour and National have been closer on tertiary education over the past 30 years, than what Labour and the Greens have.

          “But you’re missing the wider point, we need to get 50% of the vote between us, so that means Labour has to appeal to a broader constituency”

          No Chris, that’s Blairite logic. The Blarite strategy of trying to seduce the middle and upper class through policy will no longer work. Goff, Shearer and Cunliffe can tell you about that. Or try Ed Miliband.

          This is not the 90s. We do not want your soft neoliberalism. Look at Corbyn and Sanders. Look at Podemos and Syriza. The political landscape has changed, and so too must your strategy. ‘Left’ parties need groundswells of support from their base to get into power. Chasing the middle worked in the 90s after the shock of neoliberalism, but not now. Now the centre-left Blarites have embedded neoliberalism and people want a change.

          The Left are sick of so called Left parties trying to get power for the sake of getting power. No point getting hold of the steering wheel if you’re going to drive us off the same cliff.

  5. Free University education and full allowances certainly was Alliance policy, from 1991, when the Alliance contested the Tamaki By-election to the Alliances’s demise in mid 2000s. It was alo NewLabour Party policy from its formation in 1989.

  6. Free University education and full allowances certainly was Alliance policy, from 1991, when the Alliance contested the Tamaki By-election to the Alliances’s demise in mid 2000s. It was alo NewLabour Party policy from its formation in 1989.

  7. You forgot to mention MANA who want to write off student debt:

    “Develop a plan to write off student debt. In the meantime, there should be no further interest on student loans.”

    Same with the Greens:

    “Explore options to introduce a debt write-off scheme that limits the individual burden of debt, while incentivising graduates to contribute to New Zealand after

    Both the Greens and MANA want to go further than the Dollar-for-Dollar policy. It’s misleading to say only NZ First want to deal with those who already have a student loan. For many current and ex-students halving their loan isn’t enough. I’d rather debt-write off.

    And the problem with NZ First is they placed themselves in opposition to MANA who have been one of the most vocal about the student loan scam.

  8. As far as I can see there have been various attempts over the years to undo much of the damage caused by neo liberalism by a number of individuals and party’s.

    And as Chris Hipkins has stated… this is not yet the full fleshing out of this policy , more is yet to come. It is a good start by Littles Labour party but by no means should it stop there.

    The repudiation of ALL neo liberal ideology should be the goal and mainstay of Labour, NZ First and the Greens. And this therefore is but a small start to that process…

    It is ironic that we hear the words ‘ radical’ when applied to these fledgling steps taken by Labour…when in fact it is the ‘new boy on the block’ – neo liberalism – that is in fact the ‘ radical’ one.

    And as we have seen ,… neo liberalism has been a colossal failure in its delivery on just about all counts regarding the public well being , and thus needs to be given exactly the same treatment as any other public safety hazard… that of ISOLATE , MINIMIZE , ELIMINATE.

    To suggest that this recent policy of Labour is in any way ‘ radical’ only demonstrates the far rights success in indoctrinating a sufficient number of the population into accepting neo liberal ideology as ‘ orthodox’…

    And it has been a sign and symptom of the perniciousness of neo liberalism that the IMP was opposed so vehemently when in fact it was advocating many of these very same sort of policy’s…

    It is time the Left rejected any talk by the right wingers of Social Democratic methodology as being somehow ‘ radical’ as if it was never in existence before 1984 – when in fact for the majority of the 20th century it was the norm. And it caused widespread prosperity unlike any other period in this worlds history – and it worked.

    Neo liberalism and its placing the burden of payments on the population while enriching the 1% at the top is the TRULY radical doctrine , – and this latest move by Labour is a pale shadow of true former Social Democracy.

    But at least its a start.

  9. +100 Good Post which puts Labour’s Tertiary education policy movement in perspective…It is a beginning… but no more than a beginning to right wrongs

    ….It is far from the end goal which is free Tertiary education for all New Zealanders now …and a righting off of existing crippling loan debt burdens on young New Zealanders brought in by Labour and Nactional

    …so on second thoughts maybe I won’t vote for Labour yet

  10. The proposed changes will appeal to the parents of those 7-year-olds, many of whom will be worrying about supporting and paying for their kids’ tertiary education so that they are not burdened with excessive debt.

    • Yes this policy is definitely aimed at young middle class professionals in their 30s who don’t want to contribute to their kids education…

      It’s aimed at people who vote national, totally different to the 2005 student loan policy, this policy wont help students like me one iota.

  11. They should refer to the policy as ‘resubsidising’ – to convey this very reality. Then politicians who benefitted from subsidy can explain why they’re against restoring to others what they were happy to have.

  12. When will the myth that my generation of students received free tertiary education? Yes it is true we did not pay course related costs. However that true statement suffers from what I call the ‘curse of the true statement’. The curse is that one true statement often does not tell the ‘whole truth and nothing but the truth’. A comparison of the cost of student life in my generation and today gives a much more complete picture.

    Firstly we did not receive the student living allowance nor any course related costs. When completing my BA degree in 2005/06, the time interest free loans were being introduced, I calculated that cost of a years BA courses was very similar to 40 weeks student living allowance. On that basis alone current students are no worse or better off than we were.

    Because of the economic times in the 60’s and 70’s the most we could expect from our parents, in my case parent, was free board. All other living costs we had to earn ourselves. Usually this came from lower paid manual labour. Wool store barrow boys, nassella tussock grubbing, hospital cleaning and portering etc. Most of us did not have our own cars, brand clothing or holidays, especially overseas ones.

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