Martin Robbins was in favour of fee-free tertiary education but he’s found that not only could scrapping fees be a terrible idea, there’s also a far better place to put the money:
For a long time I hated tuition fees. I hated them for moral reasons and for selfish ones. I obviously wasn’t too thrilled to pay them. If I’m honest, it felt like a tax on effort, on intelligence, on wanting to make a contribution to society. ‘The country will benefit from me and people like me,’ I smugly and conveniently believed, ‘and so my education should be a taxpayer investment.’
A better reason to hate them was, I believed, the deterrent effect that they would have on poorer people entering university. If you make it more expensive to get a degree then naturally that’s going to favour people with more money. . .
There’s just one teeny tiny problem. The evidence shows that if you want to invest ten billion reducing inequality, the university system is about the worst place you can possibly put it. In fact it’s such a bad idea that it could have the exact opposite effect. . .
He shows that more people from disadvantaged areas are going to university in spite of fees.
. . .In the last decade, in spite of rising tuition fees, students are more likely to apply for university, poorer students are more likely to apply for university, and the inequality gap – while still a problem – has closed. We’re not talking about small debatable improvements here – these are massive changes. . .
Fees are a relatively small part of the cost of tertiary education and in New Zealand taxpayers already give a subsidy of about 70% towards them.
The truth is that the rot of inequality sets in years before a pupil reaches the age to be thinking about university. Research published in 2014 by the Centre for Analysis of Youth Transitions – and a stack of similar studies before that – tell us exactly where.. .
The high ability kids start off about the same, but over time the rot sets in. The gap grows and grows, with a dramatic decline for the less advantaged kids between key stage 2 (7-11) and key stage 4 (14-16). The same gap opens up between the average ability kids too, to such a large extent that by the time the four groups of children reach their GCSEs, the average ability rich kids are pulling ahead of the high ability poor kids, who by the age of 16 are already stuck in a long term rut that will affect how the rest of their lives unfold.
So taking all of the above into account, the impact of tuition fees to date and the evidence about where inequality sets in among children, I think I’m pretty clear now on where I’d like to see extra cash spent. . .
The greatest need for more money isn’t relieving tertiary students of the cost of the small proportion of fees they now pay.
The greatest need is much earlier in the education system.
Pupils who succeed at secondary level will be able to choose whether to take on tertiary study, those who don’t won’t only not have that choice they will have very limited opportunities for work as well.
The NZ Herald editorial says fee-free tertiary education is an expensive fix which has little purpose:
A universal entitlement to three years’ free tertiary education has overwhelming public appeal. Whether it is in the public interest is another question. The policy is expensive: $1.2 billion when fully implemented.
That is a considerable lump of public spending. As always when something of this magnitude is proposed, we should not look at its merits in isolation. Governments do not have infinite budgets and there is a limit to the taxation an economy can provide and remain healthy.
Labour needs to be asked, is this the most worthwhile use of $1.2 billion Is it even the most worthy use of funds allocated to education?
This question should be asked of every dollar that is spent.
Many professionals (outside the tertiary sector at least) would say raising funding of pre-school education is more socially urgent and productive than relieving school-leavers of an obligation to contribute to the cost of their qualifications.
University student associations have complained about course fees and loans to cover them since they were introduced. But many thousands of graduates have paid their fees and repaid their loans over the past 20 years.
Tertiary education has seen spectacular growth over that period, attracting foreign fee-paying students as well as meeting New Zealanders’ needs. Why change the funding system now?
Or to put it another way, what problem is this policy designed to fix? Labour’s leader presents it as an answer to the frequent and unpredictable career changes people will need in the workforce of the future. But this “future” has been present for many years now and there has been no sign the costs of retraining have become a problem.
So long as the economy remains strong and apprenticeships are available, as they are, it seems it cannot be too hard to acquire new skills.
If the wage drop creates difficulties for those with dependants, for instance, targeted assistance would be more effective than a costly new universal entitlement.
The economy is strong in large part because public spending is under control. Expensive proposals that waste money purely for political gain could put the country’s prosperity in peril.
The return to surplus after the previous Labour government had, in the words of Michael Cullen, spent the lot, was made more difficult by the GFC and the Canterbury earthquakes.
Forecasts aren’t optimistic about surpluses in the short term.
Any increase in spending must be directed where the need is greatest and it will achieve the most – that’s not making tertiary education completely fee-free.