Labour's revamped tertiary education policy promises to be popular. Jacinda Ardern announced yesterday that if her party wins the election, new students will get one year of free tertiary education starting from next year. The no-fees policy will extend to two years by 2021 and three years by 2024. Labour will also increase student allowances by $50 to $220 a week and reinstate allowances for postgraduate students and those studying for more than seven years. The allowances will cost $275 million a year and the free post-school study policy, which Ardern has brought forward a year, is expected to cost $743m by 2021.

Despite the eye-watering numbers, the promise looks likely to appeal to many middle-class families who worry about the increasing cost of tertiary study. More generous allowances and the prospect of completing a whole undergraduate degree without tuition fees will make life considerably easier for these students and their parents. Politically it should play well for Labour, which snatched the 2005 election with a late promise to abolish all interest payments on student loans - a policy National opposed but has not reversed after three terms. Now the lure of free tertiary education, combined with better public transport, a massive house-building programme and Ardern's personal charisma, could bring young people out to vote for Labour in unexpectedly high numbers.

Yet the policy raises many questions, beyond the ballooning costs - which Labour says can be met by forgoing National's promised tax cuts - and the administrative nightmare of implementing a fees ban across a huge range of education providers. For many years developed countries like New Zealand have tended to see mass participation in tertiary education as a goal in its own right. But experience has shown that increased numbers of graduates merely depresses the value of many university or polytechnic qualifications, which no longer offer any guarantee of a job. Educational and business leaders are now debating the merits of alternative models, such as Switzerland where most students take high-skilled vocational courses and only about 20 per cent go to university.

The "bums on seats" approach also tends to dilute the quality of the courses on offer, to the point where many academic staff openly despair of the shoddy practices being used to pass failing students. There is also a gaping mismatch between some prestigious courses and available jobs, which Labour will have to think through. Do we really need a rush of extra students into bargain basement law degrees, when many current graduates cannot find legal work already?

Advertisement

Labour needs to show it is prepared to grapple with a much bigger picture in tertiary education than student living costs alone. Three years of free study may help a few bright teenagers from struggling South Auckland families go to medical school. But it will not persuade many unless those students get better advice on course choices from their teachers and parents and the intensive support they need to venture into higher education. Otherwise most of the policy's benefits will be captured by relatively well-off students, who would have gone to university or polytechnic anyway.