Opinion: Why everyone is wrong about the fees-free 'failure'

OPINION: The reaction to this week's news the fees-free policy isn't costing as much as expected has been baffling.

We're so used to hearing about cost blowouts that when a pricy Government scheme turns out cheaper than expected, it seems no one knows how to respond.

The Opposition said it had "fallen over", NZME deputy political editor Claire Trevett said it was "was not delivering as advertised" and The AM Show's Duncan Garner eloquently compared the scheme to "one of those little fart cushions that people sit on".

Even Finance Minister Grant Robertson won't now commit to rolling out the promised second and third year of free tertiary education.

All of them are missing the point - that students shouldn't be lumbered with the cost of their education in the first place. Any boost in enrolment numbers that comes as a result of the fees-free policy should be considered a bonus.

The fact it's cost the taxpayer $197 million less this year than expected, which can be redirected elsewhere, should be a cause for celebration.

So should the revelation that National's warning there would be a wave of beneficiaries signing up for free courses to take advantage of the increased student allowance turned out to be wrong.

"Student allowances have previously been pegged to the jobseeker benefit so there wouldn't be any perverse incentives for people to enrol in tertiary study even if they had no intention of studying," National tertiary education spokesman Paul Goldsmith said in 2017.

"But now that's all changed, and the zero-fees policy will make it worse. It's like having a new super jobseeker benefit with no strings attached."

Err, nope.

Before I went into tertiary study, I planned to borrow as little as possible. But on crunching the numbers I realised that even if I didn't take out any living costs, I'd likely still be paying the loan off when I was old enough to retire thanks to the punishing interest rate at the time - so there was little reason not to take as much as possible (I know now 17-year-olds aren't the best at thinking ahead).

That all changed when Helen Clark canned the interest in 2006, and last year - 20 years after my first payment arrived - I was finally free of my student debt (albeit a little later than I could have been).

This is why I take particular umbrage at ACT leader David Seymour's claim the fees-free policy only benefits "children in well-off families that would have gone to university anyway".

No, Seymour. It will benefit kids like me who grew up in poverty (thanks Ruth Richardson!) and won't have to spend the next two decades of their lives paying off loans when they should instead be saving for a first home and getting their KiwiSaver nest eggs rolling. Children from "well-off families" already have the possibility of starting their adult lives debt-free. None of chose our socio-economic upbringing, and it shouldn't have any bearing whatsoever on whether we choose to go to university or not.

Education used to be a public good and funded like one. Even under protectionist economies like New Zealand had before Rogernomics, we could afford it. We're magnitudes richer now thanks to the wonders of free trade, but for some reason, there remains a reluctance to restore what should be every Kiwi's right.

Students enrolling now still have to pay thousands, possibly tens of thousands of dollars for that right. Don't judge it yet - because the true benefits of free education manifest over decades, not a single electoral cycle.

Dan Satherley is a senior digital producer for Newshub.


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