Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young: A vow, a hope and a prayer

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An entitlement to three years' tertiary education or training across a person's lifetime will be popular. Photo / Mark Mitchell
An entitlement to three years' tertiary education or training across a person's lifetime will be popular. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Labour's new education and training policy - a multi-billion dollar plan to provide every Kiwi with three years of free tertiary education - won't take full effect until the 5-year-olds starting school this week are sitting NCEA, more than three elections away.

That makes it more a case of one promise, one hope and one prayer. But leader Andrew Little has lived up to his promise that 2016 will be a year of bold policy.

An entitlement to three years' tertiary education or training across a person's lifetime will be popular.

It will be an easier sell for Little than the other "bold" policy of the past week: opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP position risks alienating Labour's rural and regional support, such that it is, because it suggests a Labour Government would be willing to deny exporters the deal's benefits.

Yesterday's policy, the "working futures plan," has few political risks.

It shows Labour has a plan at a time of rising insecurity over the future of work. It comes out of the work finance spokesman Grant Robertson is doing on the future of work, including work over the summer break in Europe, and there will be much more to come. If it is a bribe, it will be a deeply researched one, not just policy on the hoof.

Act was quick to condemn it as a policy to attract votes - a party with only one MP is clearly an expert on policy designed not to attract voters.

But Act's opposition was more surprising, because the entitlement across a lifetime is the closest thing a major party has come to Act's education vouchers policy of old - in which the funding entitlement to education followed the child.

National does itself no favours by continuing to scoff at that work.

Everyone remembers the Working for Families policies National condemned as "communism by stealth" and the interest-free student loans, but then kept them.

Steven Joyce says there is no money for the policy. True enough if it were a policy for today.

But its first year would be 2019 and the Government's half-yearly opening of the books in December confirmed plans for $1.5 billion for new spending in 2018 and 2019, which could accommodate the $265 million a year for the first four years.

That $1.5 billion is after, not including, the $3.5 billion allowances combined in the budget already for Budgets 2016 and 2017, from which National's tax cuts will come.

Labour has given itself plenty of wriggle room by stretching out implementation to 2022 for a second year's entitlement, and 2025 before a third year's entitlement kicks in.

The full cost a year, $1.2 billion, assumes a 15 per cent increase in student numbers for the first years and 11 per cent increase overall, or 40,000 students.

On today's forecasts, the promise of one free year from 2019 at an annual cost of $265 million is not unrealistic.

- NZ Herald

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Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor, a job she has held since 2003. She is responsible for the Herald’s Press Gallery team. She first joined the New Zealand Herald in 1988 as a sub-editor after the closure of its tabloid rival, the Auckland Sun. She switched to reporting in 1991 as social welfare and housing reporter. She joined the Herald’s Press Gallery office in 1994. She has previously worked as a journalism tutor at Manukau Technical Institute, as member of the Newspapers in Education unit at Wellington Newspapers and as a teacher in Wellington. She was a union nominee on the Press Council for six years.

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