Sir Tim Shadbolt concerned about crippling impact axe to Southern Institute of Technology's Zero Fees scheme will have on Southland's economy

The Southern Institute of Technology's (SIT) famous Zero Fees scheme is facing the axe with the creation of Te Pūkenga, the new national polytechnic.

That has former Invercargill mayor and the face of the scheme, Sir Tim Shadbolt, concerned about the crippling impact on Southland's identity and economy.

While SIT's Zero Fees is back for 2023, a closer look at the terms and conditions reveals it could be for a limited time.

"It'll be a disaster, it would just be awful if SIT went back to the sort of size it was pre-Zero Fees," former SIT chief executive Penny Simmonds said. 

Simmonds oversaw the introduction of the famous model offering free education for students at all levels.

"2001 was its first year and we immediately saw results. We got a 49 percent increase the first year," Simmonds told Newshub.

Since then it's put Southland and Invercargill firmly on the map, with Sir Tim proudly putting his face on the campaign.

He told Newshub he would fire himself out of a cannon again - a nod to a previous Zero Fees advertisement - if it meant he could save the scheme.

Te Pūkenga has agreed existing fees across the 16 merged institutes and polytechs can continue for the next year. But "have not yet resolved the longer-term future of Zero Fees", adding "we would expect all local fee strategies to be financially viable."

"I'm sure every citizen in this town with feel the same way. We've gotta hang on to it, we've gotta fight to keep it," Sir Tim said. 

A recent report has shown the Zero Fees scheme contributes more than $150 million to the economy.

The loss of Zero Fees has Southland Business Chamber chief executive Sheree Carey worried. 

"About 40 percent of the students that graduate stay down here and work, so it'd be a real shame to lose that."

SIT's former CEO, Simmonds, is the National Party's current tertiary education spokesperson and has a big promise in an election year.

"Hope that we have the privilege of being in Government and I can stop that happening," Simmonds said. 

Sir Tim added: "We've gotta let people know how important it is for this city's progress and Southland and the whole of New Zealand and the world."

Otherwise, the region known for Zero Fees risks zero growth.