Free tertiary plan could make education suffer


Labour's free tertiary education plan has today sparked a debate about quantity of students versus quality of education.

The body that oversees university programmes says it's all very well to increase the number of people who want to study, but the sector is already financially stretched and education standards would suffer.

The new electrical apprentices starting out in Wellington today are a few years too early to get any potential benefit from Labour's proposed plan for free tertiary education, and they didn't look overly enthused to meet Andrew Little.

Enthusiasm is not the word to describe university providers' response to the plan either, saying the expected influx of 26,000 students would put too much strain on a sector already underfunded.

"It's seen things like a worsening staff/student ratio and we would hate to see more students if we couldn't actually maintain the quality of the degrees that we're able to offer them," says Chris Whelan from Universities New Zealand.

Mr Little says quality and quantity are as important as each other.  

"The reality is [with] the way the world of work is going, more people are going to need training and education at beginning of working life or throughout it," he says. "Yes it's about quality, but it's about more; we have to provide more training and education for more people."

The most recent count has it that about 333,000, or 15 percent of all adults in New Zealand, are studying. Despite student loans, that number is increasing year on year.

The next few years though will be interesting -- the plan has the potential to delay students from studying if they see free education on the horizon. 

It's crystal ball gazing stuff for now, but one education advocates group likes what it sees around retaining talent.

"Currently a lot of successful graduates go overseas because they've got large debts to pay, so they go to other countries where there's higher income," says David Cooke from the Quality Public Education Coalition.

In Dunedin, most students said free education would persuade them to stay after study. 

"If the Government's willing to do something good for me, I'd be willing to do something good for the country and stay here," says student Matt Brazier.

But another student, Rob Bremner, says he wouldn't stay unless it was stipulated you had to work a certain number of years in New Zealand in order to get the freebie.

Under Labour's current plan, there is no stipulation.