Election 2023: National would keep fees-free policy, wouldn't means-test, despite reckons from candidate

The National Party's changed its mind on fees-free tertiary education and won't abolish it if they're elected to government. 

That's despite its Wellington Central candidate calling it a "poorly devised policy" and suggesting it should be means-tested. 

The Education Minister was in Rotorua on Wednesday for a school visit to celebrate free lunches and to announce free support for new tertiary students. 

"We know there has been a lower rate of success and completion rates in those groups," said Jan Tinetti. "We need to turn that around."

It's $10m for support services, like ensuring disadvantaged students actually attend their courses - courses which are currently fees-free for the first year.

"I think fees free is a good policy," Tinetti said.

And now the National Party thinks so too.

Asked whether National would keep it, finance spokesperson Nicola Willis said it would. 

It's a change in heart for the Nats. In 2017, they mocked the policy. 

"They'll be able to do diplomas in golf tournaments, sky diving, and homoeopathy," said Paul Goldsmith at the time.  

In 2019, they blasted it.

"This is an expensive failure," said then-leader Simon Bridges.

And in 2020, they promised to axe it.

"National will not have the fees free farce that has cost us $300m and with fewer people doing tertiary education," said then-leader Judith Collins. 

That isn't wrong. It hasn't seen more disadvantaged New Zealanders go into tertiary study like Labour promised six years ago. It's actually done the opposite. 

But with an election looming, National's changed its tune.

"We do see it's become an important support for many families and students," said Willis. 

But National Wellington Central candidate Dr Scott Sheeran isn't so sure.

He told Salient it is "absolutely a poorly designed policy."

He even floated the idea of means-testing. 

"If you're going to end up earning $2m a year, you know if you get a student loan and you don't get the support and don't get first-year fees free, is it really such a problem?"

But his deputy leader shut it down quickly.

"That's not in our consideration."

Tinetti said: "I'm never going to take anything off the table but that is not something I have looked into or even thought about at this point."

It appears fees-free is free from being a football at this election even if it's costly and isn't doing what it's meant to - get more people into tertiary study.