6 Dec 2017

School leavers back fee-free tertiary policy

8:39 am on 6 December 2017

School leavers have enthusiastically welcomed the government's zero-fee tertiary education policy and say they hope it will encourage friends and relatives to enrol.

Aotea College students Joana Pulepule, Isaac Dowden and Elaina Tolai.

Aotea College students Joana Pulepule, Isaac Dowden and Elaina Tolai. Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

Students at Porirua's Aotea College attended the launch of the policy by Prime Minister Jacinda Adern and said it would be a big help to them and their families.

Elaina Tolai said she was reconsidering her plans for next year in light of the announcement.

"I wasn't planning on going to university next year," she said. "But now that this policy is now in place, it brings an option to the table and I'm thinking of going into it now."

School head girl Joana Pulepule said she was planning to go to university next year anyway, but the policy would have a big impact on Pasifika families.

"As a Pacific Islander it's definitely brought off barriers financially.

"I'm the eldest of eight so definitely for my parents it just opens new pathways to be able to financially support my younger siblings as well, so I think this policy is great."

Isaac Dowden said the policy would open up tertiary study to people who would not otherwise consider it.

"I think it's great. It gives opportunity to so many students to just go to university, try something and do something with their lives."

Nooroa Faraimo said she was enrolled in Otago University next year and would now try to persuade some of her relatives that they should think about tertiary education too.

"It's a game changer for a lot of doors to be opened for a lot of students and other people who have never thought about study before."

Other students told RNZ the policy would make it easier for students to change their minds if they realised in their first year that they were studying the wrong subject.

Aotea College principal Kate Gainsford said the policy would have a big impact on many school leavers.

"There are students who have been sometimes reluctant or have mixed feelings about going on to tertiary. There's a lot of pressure sometimes, not just from themselves, to be earning money, but from their families and so the possibility of big loans is quite a deterrent to many of them so this will make a huge difference," she said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Jacinda Adern urged people who already had loans not to feel bitter about the policy, which she said was the latest in a series of improvements for students.

"Over the years we've cumulatively seen improvements in this area. When I started in study, students were paying interest on their loans, then interest came off while you were studying, then in 2005, interest was lifted altogether. And now we're making this next step," Ms Ardern said.

"What I'm asking those students of the past, just remember how hard it was and acknowledge that we want it to be better for those in the future even though they might not be the beneficiary."

Ms Ardern said about 80,000 students were expected to qualify for zero fees of up to $12,000 next year and most of them would be in vocational education and training.

"The majority of students who take this up are likely to go into polytech, vocational training, apprenticeships, wananga and PTEs. Not university. And so we want to really emphasise those are the areas where we need more skills and trade training and those are the areas where we're likely to see uptake."

Ms Ardern said apprentices would be covered for two years' worth of course costs.

"For the students, this will feel pretty seamless for them.

"They simply need to go and enrol, particularly if they are a school-leaver, because almost certainly regardless of what they've done while they've been at school they will be eligible."

Weltec and Whitireia institutes of technology chief executive Chris Gosling said he hoped the policy would encourage more people to enrol in trades and applied training.

"We don't know exactly what the impact's going to be, but we certainly hope that people who may not have had the opportunity to access tertiary study and polytechnic study in the past will see this as an opportunity to do it from now on."

Mr Gosling said the two polytechnics had not yet seen an increase in enrolments because of the policy, which was announced before the September election.

Universities New Zealand chief executive Chris Whelan said the universities had some queries about how the system would work, including whether there were limits on the number of credits for which students could claim the government fee subsidy in a single year.

The government's Fees-Free website said the policy was intended to cover one year's study or two years' industry training, which was usually 120 credits, but some people studied more or less than that and the government would fund up to $12,000 for study in a year.

"It's certainly - with a $12,000 limit - possible for a student to cram a heck of a lot of courses actually into one calendar year by all three semesters and potentially get as much as two full years of tuition fees out of that money," Mr Whelan said.

Mr Whelan said universities that offered first-year fee scholarships to school-leavers would ensure the recipients received the value of that scholarship in some other way, such as by deferring the scholarship to the second year of study or providing an accommodation or cash payment.

National Tertiary Education spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said the policy opened the door for an enormous amount of wasteful spending, and taxpayers would end up paying for more people to study golf and skydiving.

"While it makes sense that golf students 'have an in-depth understanding of golf theory' is it really a high priority for new spending?" he said.

"New Zealand's tertiary education system is already heavily subsidised and the average student loan is paid off in less than seven years. This policy will just give even more money to people who will earn high incomes and should contribute something to the cost of their education."

Mr Goldsmith also warned the number of people not completing studies would increase.

"And with all the money being sucked into supporting every full-time student in their first year, it leaves nothing to invest in the tertiary institutions themselves so that they can deliver world-class education that equips the next generation of Kiwis to be internationally competitive."

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