If Labour people come into Parliament with any influential experience in life it was probably their years at university. Many National MPs have been to university too but not in the same way. They mostly went for a professional qualification, Labour people go for the joy and stimulation of higher education.

And the experience stays with them for life. While accountants, lawyers, engineers and other business professionals, if they reflect on their undergraduate years at all, recall the tedium of lecture halls, assignments and exams with no affection and can be heard to doubt they learned anything useful there, graduates in the arts and sciences never lose the love of their subjects and their respect for academic achievements. If they are a "Dr" of anything, they'll let you know it.

So it surprises and disappoints me that this Government is going to make universities free.

If the Ardern Government lasts as long as Helen Clark's and John Key's, free tertiary eduction could be its main legacy. It is scrapping fees for the first year of a degree from next year and if it's re-elected in 2020 it will make the second year free. If it gets a third term in 2023 a third year will be free.


It is easy to see the electoral benefit Labour expects, though in fact it didn't get it this year. Despite Jacinda Ardern spending most of the campaign on tertiary campuses where early voting stations were set up in expectation of a "youthquake" turnout, despite her appeal to generational politics and the promise to phase out fees, Labour's vote was not much higher than it was before it adopted the policy a few years ago.

Labour insists its three-year "study right" for all is a response to the changing nature of work. We've been hearing for years that we're in an era of endless technological change with jobs constantly disappearing and new ones being created. Fewer people can expect a job for life, many more will need to retrain during their working years, possibly several times.

I'm not sure these people will be wanting a three-year degree course whether it's free or not. The study right will probably be taken up mostly by fresh students and retirees. Its impact will be felt on universities rather than the polytechs it seems designed for, which can already go "fees-free" if they want. It surprises and disappoints me that Labour gives no sign it has thought about what the impact on universities will be.

In my dreams New Zealand has a truly world class university. Just one would do. Imagine if even one of our seven was rated up there with Melbourne, Sydney, ANU or Queensland, let alone Oxford, Cambridge and the many in the US now ranked with them. Is it so fanciful?

We might not have the population to provide endowments as generous as those enjoyed by many in those countries though many times I have heard Auckland University's vice chancellor boast about its success in generating revenue from sources other than the government. Is it beyond the realms of reality that one of our universities could raise enough money to attract some of the world's leading thinkers in their field and begin to put itself on the academic map?

I don't expect any government to provide the means, they are answerable to an egalitarian ethos in public spending. It would require private and corporate sponsorship which should be possible. Many would like to be associated with a renowned university.

It might be possible to be a great university without charging fees for undergraduate courses but free entry feels like a step in the opposite direction. It is not just that people generally value what they pay for, it is that "free" public services always have to come with more government control. Universities will have less latitude to charge for tuition and, pretty soon, less autonomy in the students they must accept, the staff they can employ and how much they can pay. It is a recipe for mediocrity and decline.

Will the quality of universities suffer when students are no longer charged for tuition? Will students choose courses as carefully? Will they do the work as diligently? Will they stay the course in the same numbers? By the time we get answers, free entry will be well entrenched and no future government will dare restore fees — unless excessive government spending has sent the economy into recession and the need for savings is apparent to voters.


Arguably we need less tertiary education, not more. It shouldn't take three years in lecture rooms to learn a craft like mine. But universities are different, they provide the guidance to read, think, research and write with the discipline of knowledge and reason. Good ones are not cheap.