I was very glad to hear Andrew Little announce his first new policy as leader of the party yesterday, especially knowing the benefits people like me and those who’ll come after will experience. Labour is planning to offer students three years of free tertiary education and or training to school leavers. This is an excellent policy, along with Helen Clark’s interest free student loans in 2005. I don’t necessarily consider the policy a game changer on its own, though can agree with the likes of Curwen Rolinson who have said it’s a good step in the right direction. But while those like me who fact the prospect of 5 figure debts following university celebrate this announcement, we have the freemarket loyalists in National, ACT and David Farrar’s plaything, the Taxpayer Union condemn the move.
So, why exactly are they opposed to giving students the right to free tertiary study, a direct long term investment in our future generations that will reward our country with much needed skills and a generation ready to change our country? I’ve heard two arguments against it.
Number 1. It’s too expensive. That’s a perfectly valid argument, but I don’t see why they are so against spending money giving people an opportunity to better their education. Andrew Little said the policy would cost around $120 million in the first year, with the full cost being $1.2 billion, which he’d pay for out of National’s proposed tax cuts fund. I personally think it’s much more responsible to spend the money on tertiary rather than cutting taxes, which is not what you want to do when the signs all point to a slowing economy. Also, the Tories spent $1.5 billion on upgrading the IRD’s computer system, way too much to upgrade a small country’s tax department’s network. The price tag may look big, but it is a price worth paying. There is no return on tax cuts, but a return that’ll keep giving in tertiary.
Number 2. Free tertiary is only going to decrease the value of the education they receive. This is probably the most ridiculous of the pair. I would ask this of those who argue this. If giving free education devalues it, why do we still have 20 hours of free childcare? This policy has been in place since 2007 and has been a great way to ensure those at the bottom can give their kids the opportunity to learn. This argument can also be slammed by looking at those with free tertiary in place. Scotland, for instance, has free tertiary education for all Scottish undergraduates and EU citizens, while English, Welsh and Northern Irish have to pay tuition. Scotland was also found in 2014, to be the most well educated country in Europe! Germany, which also gives free tertiary to Germans and international students and is home to several of the top 500 best universities.
The neoliberal argument that paid education is the best future forward is both blind and idiotic. We are seeing moves taken to make tertiary free or to relieve debt upon students. Both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have said public tertiary institutes would be free under them if they were to win power and I’m glad Andrew Little is following them and joining the likes of Angela Merkel and Nicola Sturgeon in standing up for tertiary students and ensuring our next generation can enter the workforce without the crushing weights of student debt.