By Peter Wilson
Labour leader Andrew Little is accusing the Government of overseeing a huge student debt blowout driven by tertiary fee increases.
He's defending his party's free tertiary education policy against National MP Steven Joyce's criticism that it won't achieve anything other than a proliferation of short courses, poor achievement and spiralling costs.
He also says it's fair for students to fund around a quarter of their course costs because when they hold degrees they'll earn a lot more than those who don't.
Mr Little says Mr Joyce's reaction reveals National's true attitude to post-school education.
"Student loan debt has risen from less than $10 billion in 2008 to $15 billion today," he said.
"That's mostly driven up by the 37 percent increase in tertiary fees under National, while government tuition funding has risen just 3 percent."
Mr Little said saddling young people with student debt had prevented many from taking up study, and the policy was designed to help them.
It would deliver three years of free university, polytech or other skills training when fully implemented in 2025.
The first phase, one year of free courses, would start in 2019.
Student unions are welcoming the policy and the primary teachers union NZEI is backing it.
Universities aren't so sure, and say there will be problems with increased student numbers unless the policy includes more institutional funding.
Chris Whelan, executive director of Universities New Zealand, which represents all universities, told the New Zealand Herald they were already under pressure.
"We trust Mr Little will also commit to lifting the institutional funding that will be needed to maintain teaching quality for the increased number of students," he said.
"Without this, this policy will just hasten the decline in the quality of our university system."