Tertiary sector in limbo over first free year

With the first year of tertiary study set to be free from next year, the industry is sitting in limbo as it waits to see the finer details of one of the new Government’s flagship policies. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

Will retirees be able to study for free? If you dropped out of university in the first year, are you still eligible? Does studying overseas count?

These are just some of the questions tertiary institutions and potential students are waiting for answers on as the Government prepares to implement the first tranche of its fees-free study policy.

Announced before the election, the policy is a cornerstone of the new Government’s 100-day plan and promises students in their first year can study for free.

It’s estimated to cost $340 million a year, and by 2024 will expand to three years free study.

An announcement on exactly how the policy will be structured is expected shortly. Another bonus for students, an increase in student allowances, was confirmed yesterday.

Behind the scenes, the Tertiary Education Commission, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Social Development, and Inland Revenue are all understood to be working furiously to get the fees policy ready for 1 January.

It is generally believed that students who were studying at secondary school this year will be eligible, but how far the policy extends beyond that is still unknown.

Some universities, including Auckland University and Otago University, refused to comment until the full details of the policy had been made public.

But others in the industry were more willing to speak about the potential impacts as they wait to see what final shape the policy will take.

“The average fee is about $6000 a year...but we’re absolutely nervous in future years that the Government could start shaving off that.”

Dr Rod Carr, vice chancellor of Canterbury University, said the institution was already seeing an impact from the policy with enrolments for next year up about 10 percent.

At seven weeks into the enrolment cycle, there had been 3254 enrolments, while last year there had been 3296 during the full 22-week period.

While the university had been predicting a five percent increase, the free fees policy had boosted that with record interest from Wellington, and Auckland, as well as from Christchurch high school students.

Carr said he was delighted with the increase, with Canterbury well placed to pick up the extra students as it was still about 2000 below pre-earthquake enrolment levels.

There were still a huge range of details that were still unknown and could change things significantly, Carr said.

These included whether the policy covered just the first calendar year, or could be split over academic years for part-time students and whether programmes such as an MBA that did not require an undergraduate degree were included.

Longer-term, there could be a risk that institutions outside Auckland had to increase their spend on marketing and scholarships to attract students as they chased a piece of a fixed pie, he said.

Pam Thorburn, director of student academic services at Victoria University, said it was too early to say if the policy would affect enrolment trends but so far there had been no impact.

Most of the inquiries from students had been about eligibility - and those details were still unknown.

The university was working with government agencies and had ambitious growth strategies, so already had a plan in place for increased enrolments should they come, she said.

Is Christmas cancelled?

With just a few months until students will arrive for the 2018 academic year, tertiary staff will be in for a busy summer.

Chris Whelan, chief executive of Universities New Zealand, said it was difficult for institutions to prepare or advise students when they had no idea how the policy would work.

He said it was was unlikely there would be a dramatic increase in students heading to university who weren’t already, considering the current interest-free scheme.

But overseas studies had shown that tuition fees were a barrier keeping about five to 11 percent of lower socio-economic students from studying.

Depending on who was eligible, there could also be an increase in adult students such as those who were between jobs or retired people who decided to study to fill in their time.

“It’s shockingly poor practice, there’s no doubt about it.”

The upper-end increase being suggested by the Government was 15 percent, but Whelan said other industry experts put the figure at just two percent.

Universities could absorb a small increase with little difficulty, but a larger one could cause problems.

A longer-term concern, however, was how to maintain the quality of teaching without increased funding.

“All the noises that the Government has made at the moment is no university is going to end up being short-changed in the first year.

“The average fee is about $6000 a year...but we’re absolutely nervous in future years that the Government could start shaving off that.”

Whelan expected a busy few months for university staff as they worked out how the changes would be implemented.

“It’s not quite ‘Christmas is cancelled’ but realistically, we’re at the 21st November, maybe we’ll hear by the beginning of December, maybe a little after that...of course students have a lot of uncertainty around whether to apply and universities themselves can’t give the assurances they normally would.”

Spending on a ‘massive scale’

The new Government’s spending has been vigorously criticised by National, and free fees is no exception.

Paul Goldsmith, National’s tertiary education spokesperson, said he was interested to see how the Government planned to introduce the legislation in such a short timeframe, with it obviously having to skip the select committee stage.

“It’s shockingly poor practice, there’s no doubt about it.”

There were still unanswered questions about the eligibility of Australians, and whether the policy it would apply to private institutions.

Unintended consequences could also appear with such rushed policy including drawing even more people away from the trades, which currently boasted relatively low fees making it an attraction to students, Goldsmith said.

With fees having been around for 30 years, those generations that had already paid would now also have to pay, through taxes, for the free tertiary education made available to a younger generation, he said.

“The broader policy is one we have trouble with, it’s grossly untargeted spending on a massive scale.”

Education Minister Chris Hipkins was unavailable for an interview, but in a written statement said it was too early to tell what the policy’s effects on student numbers would be on any specific provider.

“Our fees-free policy is designed to improve affordability and access to tertiary education and training, so I do expect the policy will boost demand for tertiary study over time.”

An announcement about student eligibility and how the policy would be implemented would be made “very soon”, Hipkins said.


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