By Eilish Buckley
Almost one year on — how is the government’s fees-free tertiary education policy doing?
With many students disenfranchised about their mounting debt (worth collectively more than 15 billion dollars), now is a good time to reflect on the fees-free policy that was brought into effect by the Labour government this year. Has it had a positive or negative impact on tertiary education in New Zealand?
The Road to a Policy
Every year, the Ministry of Education sets a cap on how much tertiary education fees can be increased for students studying in New Zealand. The government decided to place this limit at 2% in 2017 and 2018. Last year, the University of Auckland raised fees to this maximum threshold and they are expected to do the same again this year. Last year’s fee increase means that the cheapest degree would cost a student at the University exactly $6,000 for a year’s worth of courses. In 2000, it was half as much, meaning that university fees have doubled in the last 18 years by way of yearly fee increases.
As university fees continue to increase, student enrolment at tertiary institutions has been falling and was expected to continue along this trend until 2021. The Labour government has sought to counter this drop with its free tertiary education or training policy. The first year of education or training was made free at the start of 2018, and Labour wants to increase this to two years by 2021 and three years by 2024.
Labour aims for this policy to increase enrolments. They claim that the purpose is to “help reverse the worrying decline in tertiary participation seen under the current Government, so that we can better equip the younger generation for the jobs of the future”. Initial reports of enrolment rates from this year showed a meagre increase of 0.3% compared to 2017. As a result, media outlets were quick to denounce this policy as a failure. However, what is clear is that the policy has turned around a projected decrease and stabilised the number of students entering tertiary education.
So the policy has had a minimal effect on getting Kiwis into tertiary education — but what are the other effects of first year fees-free?
The Vice Chancellor of Auckland University, Stuart McCutcheon, has made a point of opposing fees-free since its announcement last year. He noted that few students are put off university by fees, as they can take out a student loan to pay for those costs. Instead, students are more heavily burdened by living costs, such as renting in Auckland. Fees-free does not address these issues, and he blames this for the fact that University of Auckland enrolment did not increase this year. Furthermore, McCutcheon claimed that the eight universities that he represents under Universities New Zealand had collectively spent $500,000 in administering the fees-free policy and determining who was eligible.
National MP Paula Bennett has also been a strong critic of the policy, nothing that the millions spent on what she calls the “fees-free bribe” could have instead been used as government funding of universities. She notes that university funding did not increase at all this year — not even to keep up with inflation.
A lack of funding increases this year has had an adverse effect on the quality of a number of faculties at the University of Auckland. 21 staff cuts have been proposed in the Faculty of Education,  with 5.5 other in European Languages. This comes on top of library closures and 100 job losses in support services, announced earlier in the year. This is a trend followed in universities over the country, which McCutcheon touts as a reaction to a ‘funding issue’. AUT, for example, has proposed cuts to 40 jobs under arts and humanities. 
Despite these cuts, it is notable that the University of Auckland is nearing the final stages of building projects, namely in the Science and Engineering Faculties, costing the university $500 million.  While job instability has been linked by some to the year’s inadequate funding, the Tertiary Education Union has also criticised McCutcheon for questionable employment practices, including silencing affected staff and making official complaints against library closure protests. At the end of last year, the University of Auckland fell 30 places in its international ranking;  some suggest that the problem goes beyond government funding and the fees-free policy, and can be attributed to a wider range of factors.
Where does this leave us?
It is clear that there are a number of interrelated issues at play that are all contributing to problems of enrolment, education quality and New Zealand offering an internationally competitive education. Certainly, free tertiary education is a valuable asset that brings New Zealand universities up to the standard set by many other successful institutions, notably those in Europe. However, at a time when universities are turning to cuts in order to get by, perhaps the Labour government should be rethinking the best ways to promote higher education in New Zealand. This burden is one that should also be shared by university management. Last year, the University of Auckland reported a $23 million surplus — perhaps some of this money could be better invested in students.
 University of Auckland 2017 Annual Report
The Public Policy Club is a non-partisan club at the University of Auckland that aims to encourage, educate and involve students from all backgrounds in the education and development of political knowledge. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PPC.