Labour preparing student debt policy

By Ruth Berry

The Government is preparing policy to reduce student debt, as it builds a platform of election-year sweeteners.

Education Minister Trevor Mallard confirmed yesterday that he was "contemplating ... a range of options as part of a continuous improvement of conditions for tertiary students".

"We've already made some changes in allowances, fees are of course much lower on average than they were when we came into Government, and the loan conditions are much better.

"As a result ... average time spent to reduce loans has gone from 14.9 to 9.5 years and what I'm considering is a measure or a package of measures which will continue to get that number coming down."

Labour MPs meet in Wellington today for what Prime Minister Helen Clark described as an important policy caucus and are likely to be briefed on the options under consideration.

"We will be taking a wide range of policy papers to the caucus for discussion and that's a very central step in finalising our manifesto," she said yesterday.

Helen Clark has previously made it clear that Labour will lead its fightback with new policies, rather than just relying on its record.

Reducing the $7 billion student loan debt is perceived as a voter-wide concern and in a recent Herald Digi-poll survey education was rated the fourth most important issue for voters.

The issue is a key election plank for the Greens, New Zealand First, United Future and the Maori Party.

Labour joined those parties in signing a pledge to increase the eligibility for student allowances if it won the election, at the University Students' Association debt summit conference which finished in Auckland yesterday.

National refused to sign and has yet to unveil a tertiary policy.

National education spokesman Bill English would not say last night when that would be done and whether students could expect much from it.

The Government is searching for policy fillips it can use to contrast the benefits of its targeted spending approach to National's pledge for across-the-board tax cuts.

Mr Mallard signalled his intention to use student debt policy to do this at the summit, hinting also, however, that any moves may not come into effect immediately.

The Government had a record of putting in place medium and long-term policies and "we will not be getting into a tax cut and spending auction for this election".'

"But I do know that we can and must do better in tertiary education and at this year's election you will be presented with a real choice." Students association co-president Camilla Belich said it was optimistic now the Government appeared willing to consider real policy change to tackle the problem.

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