The Government's one-year fees-free tertiary policy was called a "complete disaster" this week, but a university has defended it saying it's helped students get started.
"I'm not saying it's the best policy, but it's a policy that helps students that are trying to get ahead through education, and generally we think that's a good direction," says Derek McCormack, vice-chancellor of Auckland University of Technology.
He said the policy - which came into force in January - has helped reduce the burden on students who are entering university, telling Newshub AUT has seen an increase this year in domestic undergraduate students who have joined for the first time.
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"Can we say that it's due to the fees-free policy? Not for sure. Can we say that it's not due to the fees-free policy? Not for sure, either. But overall, the university sector has had a small increase," he said.
Earlier this week, National deputy leader Paula Bennett blasted the Government's one-year free tertiary policy, saying it has failed to attract more people to higher education, with 2400 fewer students in tertiary education and training than a year ago.
"This policy is costing taxpayers $2.8 billion and we're going backwards," she said. "[The Government] should never have over-promised and should be spending this money in education areas where it is really needed."
National MP Judith Collins also slammed the Government for offering students one-year free tertiary education when teachers' demands for better pay and resources haven't yet been met.
"The trouble is, the teachers can read, and they can read that there's been a free bonus to all these tertiary students in their first year, and they know that there's been wastage of money," she told The AM Show last week.
But Education Minister Chris Hipkins hit back, saying the initiative is tracking well after its first year, with more than 40,000 people receiving fees-free study or training.
"Given the difficult last couple of years that many of our polytechnics and institutes of technology have experienced, the stabilising of enrolment numbers in that sector is particularly encouraging," he said, referring to a drop in tertiary enrolments of about 5000 during 2017.
Mr McCormack says the one-year fees-free policy isn't just about helping out university students. It's a boost for all students who are doing any form of tertiary education where you pay fees that are covered by the student loan system, including trades.
"There are more people in higher education at our university than there were last year and I'm not talking about people that have gone on to postgraduate," he said. "These are 233 equivalent full-time students who are domestic, who are first year, in undergraduate programmes."
Three years fees-free?
The Government plans to release a more complete picture of how the one-year fees-free policy is going in early 2019 after more data is collected for the full 2018 year.
There's no indication that its initial plan to expand the policy to two fees-free years by 2021 and three fees-free years by 2024 has changed, and Mr McCormack believes there are other ways that money could be spent.
"While fees are generally covered for students by an interest-free student loan that they don't start paying until they're in work, costs like rent, bus fares, the cost of food, and so on, are often the things that cause students to have to drop out or to not even start university education.
"The Government has moved a little bit on those with an increase in the student allowance for those students who are eligible for it, but it's not working for many students, so that's an area that could be looked at as an alternative to the next two years of fees-free."
ACT leader David Seymour has criticised the one fees-free policy, saying "tyre kickers" were signing up to university with no intention of completing a degree.
But Mr McCormick disputes this, telling Newshub this would be "discernible". He said it's common for students to drop out if they're struggling or cannot afford to go on, but the "vast majority stay on".
"I don't think anyone would take advantage of one year fees-free and give up all of the things you have to give up to be a university student."
Māori and Pasikifa missing out
Mr McCormack said the Government needs to work towards getting more Māori and Pasikifa into tertiary education. Māori make up 21 percent of enrolments but only 17 percent of fees-free recipients, figures from the Ministry of Education show.
"New Zealand does have quite a reasonable number of people going to university. But there are some gaps where people who are in low socio economic status have difficulty or find university an impossible dream," said Mr McCormack.
"We don't have as many Māori and Pasikifa people in university as we would like across the nation so there is some work to do."
Tertiary education spokesperson Paul Goldsmith earlier this year questioned whether rich people should have the same right to free study as those who are most in need.
But Mr Hipkins said education is a "public good" and all should have access.