Labour’s promise of free tertiary education

20 February 2016

Free tertiary education for three years — who wouldn’t want that? It’s what the Labour Party is promising if they’re elected in 2017, and again in 2020 and 2023, when they finally hope to implement the policy. 

While I’m sympathetic to the intention (if underwhelmed by the urgency), it won’t go anywhere near far enough to address some of the issues facing post-secondary education. From my experience as a tutor and observer of what’s happening in education there’s a big crunch occurring from a number of directions.

Worldwide the numbers of young people opting for education after high school has grown enormously over the last few decades. From the perspective of governments this is costly. 

Then there’s the phenomenon of “educational inflation”. Once upon a time a bachelor’s degree might get you a good job, then it was a masters degree that was needed to stand out. Now even that’s no guarantee of a well-paying job for many graduates. The question many young people will be asking: is why endure years of living hand-to-mouth, be saddled with student debt and risk being no better off than when you started? If you’re not from a family wealthy enough to support you for a number of years, there’s pressure to make a rational decision to drop out of the higher education race or only buy into it as an alternative to being on a benefit.

It’s also rational to think differently about education. Perhaps I can learn what I’m passionate about it in some other way, through volunteer work and mentoring for instance. Or maybe I accept that I’m going to work in retail or hospitality and I’ll gain a sense of worth through self-education as a creative artist or becoming an expert on permaculture. Both of which can easily be done by watching You Tube videos, getting books from the library and connecting with like-minded people in the community.

You’ve also got the emergence of new education providers that aren’t tied to national academic regulations. Internationally there are new internet-based education providers like Kahn Academy offering an online education for free. These will likely get better in quality and be more appealing to international thinking student. 

Consider all these factors and the model of centralised government funded tertiary education starts to look increasingly dinosaurish.

In response some politicians will likely advocate selling off tertiary institution assets altogether. The market reforms of the tertiary sector already see New Zealand universities and polytechs run like corporations competing for fee paying students. At the top are overpaid upper management, who usually have no background in teaching. While many staff put up with temporary and part-time contracts and the stress of unrealistic work demands.

The market model combined with declining government funding also means tertiary institutions are being tempted to sacrifice educational quality for a fast buck from courses where teaching hours are less than what national standards require. Some New Zealand tertiary institutions have recently been found out, others will be nervous.

So yes Labour, three years of free post-school education sounds good, but you’re going to have to do a whole lot better if you want to properly address the problems and issues faced by the tertiary education system.

As a parent I know I’ll be encouraging my kids to think very carefully and perhaps outside the box about how they pursue their education and life goals.


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