Mid-life adults are joining young school-leavers in a rush to take advantage of the new Government's policy of one year's free tertiary education.
Some polytechnics are reporting increases of up 19 per cent in early enrolments as the Government prepares legislation within its first 100 days to make the first year of tertiary education and training free from January 1.
However some universities report little effect so far and tertiary education consultant Dave Guerin predicted that the fees-free policy would lift next year's enrolments by only about 2 per cent - well short of a 15 per cent increase that was factored into Labour's pre-election costings.
The party budgeted $344 million for the first full year of the policy, plus $273 million a year to increase student allowances by $50 a week, with the fees-free policy extending to two years from 2021 and three years from 2024.
Universities NZ director Chris Whelan said enrolment staff reported a definite "uptick" in inquiries from people of all ages.
"We've had a number of recent cases saying, 'Can I finally do that French literature degree that I've always wanted to do?'" he said.
"We've had at least one inquiry from someone saying, 'I want to finally go and do an MBA [Master of Business Administration], would that cover my first year?'"
Careers advisers in low-decile schools said the frees-free policy would also help more low-income school-leavers go on to tertiary courses, although not necessarily immediately.
Blue Newport, careers adviser at decile-2 Okaihau College and Northland chairman of the Careers and Transition Education Association, said his students were not sure whether to believe the new policy.
"I teach in a school where Year 13s can't access tertiary education because they can't afford it and from their point of view this is like opening the door," he said.
"But they are not sure they can trust it. When the two of us who run the Year 13s say, 'Come on you guys, this is it,' they go, 'Really, is that true?' So it's a matter of waiting and seeing, is this really going to happen?"
Manukau Institute of Technology student journey manager Michelle Leadsom said course-related inquiries via online channels in October jumped 19 per cent from the same month last year.
"For many potential students financial barriers can be a real deterrent to study, so the new policy will really help," she said.
Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec) chief executive Mark Flowers said applications from new students were up more than 10 per cent from this time last year, with increases in business, information technology, nursing, trades and engineering, and primary industries.
But he said this was partly due to population and industrial growth and it was unclear how much of it was due to free study.
Unitec communications manager Nick Wilson said Unitec was "fielding a lot of questions about the new fees-free study policy" but early enrolments were up only "slightly".
AUT communications head Alison Sykora said a Facebook post about the fees-free policy had been widely shared, and the university expected it to boost enrolments next year, but there was no increase in early applications yet.
Auckland University communications manager Gabriella Davila said the policy would have no effect on student numbers there because course numbers were already capped.
Te Wānanga o Aotearoa chief executive Dr Jim Mather said it was unclear how the policy would affect the wānanga because many of its courses were already free.
Hipkins said most courses at levels 1 and 2 on the NZ qualifications framework were already free, so the new policy would mainly affect courses at level 3 and above.
He said apprentices and other part-time students would be entitled from January to the equivalent of one year's fulltime fees-free study. Someone whose course was assessed as a quarter of a fulltime course would be entitled to four years of free quarter-time study.
The fees-free policy applies to "everyone starting education or training for the first time". Hipkins said the next Cabinet meeting on November 20 would consider detailed eligibility criteria based on the length and nature of previous courses.
"We don't want to exclude people from accessing it if they have done a very small course," he said. "Those who have done a week or two's course, we don't want them to be excluded. We have worked out a formula that will make it very clear."
He said age limits would be "broadly similar" to existing restrictions. Former Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce set limits of five years on student allowances for students under 40, three years for students aged 40 to 64, and no eligibility above age 65. Student loans for living costs are not available above age 55.