Labour leader Andrew Little says any unfairness in Labour's scheme for three years of free tertiary education will only be short term and is required for it to be affordable.

Mr Little visited Millars Electrical in Wellington today to start the sales pitch for his policy, which will give first-time tertiary students three years of education without having to pay fees.

The policy is expected to cost $1.2 billion after it is rolled out over three years.

Mr Little has claimed it is for those who are required to change their careers in mid-life but it will be available only to first-time tertiary students, such as school-leavers and those who have had no tertiary education.

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He denied it was unfair that some people would be attending courses for nothing while others had to pay. "There will be situations like that, I'm sure. But we've kind of got to get through that when we're putting in place a system we want to be around for decades after that."

Mr Little said there was no perfect system for introducing the scheme.

"This is about a long-term plan to set up an education system that is fit for the 21st century long term. And we won't be able to introduce three years' free tertiary education in one fell swoop; that's why we're phasing it in.

"This is very much geared to the fact there are going to be a whole bunch of people in the middle of their working lives who won't have any post-school training or education who will need that."

Mr Little said the policy recognised the fact that a school education was no longer enough to be in the workforce.

He dismissed the suggestion it would have a short-term perverse incentive to school-leavers to delay going into tertiary education until Labour was elected into government.

"I think most young people are keen, energetic, ambitious. They want to get on and get ahead. They will look around and see what assistance they can get, but they have their dreams to pursue. They should chase those dreams."

He said Labour intended to make that easier for them, but had to do it at a pace that was affordable.

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce said the policy was unfair because it meant taxes from people in low-paid jobs would be subsidising the educations of doctors, lawyers and accountants even more than they currently were.

The policy is partly aimed at reducing student debt. Mr Little said student loan debt had reached $15 billion. He said Mr Joyce was wrong to claim it took an average of six years to repay a student loan. The average debt was $20,000, Mr Little said, and the average payback time was nine year. "I don't know where he gets his figures from. He has a degree in zoology; perhaps he doesn't know maths."

Mr Joyce's office later sent out the document Mr Joyce's figure was from -- the annual report on the Student Loan Scheme. It said that the median forecast repayment time for those who left study in 2011 and stayed in New Zealand was 5.8 years, compared to 15 years for those who left the country.