Student enrolments have jumped in most polytechnics in the second half-year as the tertiary fees-free policy appears to be having a delayed impact.

The fees-free policy, touted to cost $1.2 billion a year by 2025 when the Labour Party unveiled it in 2016, fell flat when it took effect in the first half of this year with total domestic tertiary student numbers down 0.2 per cent, including a 2.6 per cent drop in polytechnics.

But six big polytechnics are reporting jumps of between 3 per cent and 57 per cent in new domestic enrolments in the second half-year, which began last week.

Manukau Institute of Technology chief executive Gus Gilmore said a 15 per cent jump in applications for the half-year, with a 5 per cent increase in confirmed enrolments so far, was a welcome reversal after declining enrolments over recent years which have thrown many polytechnics into financial crisis.


"We are now starting to see some upside from the fees-free policy," he said.

The country's biggest polytech Unitec, where a commissioner was appointed last week after enrolments plunged in the past five years, has seen new domestic students jump 11.6 per cent in the second half and overall domestic rolls so far this year grow by 480, or 5 per cent.

Interim chief executive Merran Davis said it was possible the fees-free policy was having a delayed impact, along with other factors such as new facilities and ending an experiment with contracting out enrolments.

"It is great to see an increase in New Zealanders seeking to study and gain qualifications," she said.

READ MORE: Crisis forces policy review at Unitec

At Napier-based Eastern Institute of Technology chief executive Chris Collins said second-half enrolments were up by 130 fulltime-equivalent students, or 20 per cent.

"We don't know for sure whether this is related to fees-free, but there would appear to be some correlation," he said.

Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec) said a 10.6 per cent increase in second-half new domestic enrolments reflected both the Government's one-year fees-free policy for students who have not studied at tertiary level before, and a Wintec initiative to offer fees-free trades courses to all comers this year.

The biggest jump in second-half enrolments was at Otago Polytechnic - up from 96 fulltime-equivalent students last year to 151, a 57 per cent increase.

"We have added an extra stream of carpentry students, our managed apprenticeship programme has continued to grow, and we have had an increase in demand for the Level 4 Certificate in Study and Career Preparation," said communications director Mike Waddell.

But he said it was too early to say if the fees-free policy had affected the figures.

The smallest of the six big increases was Ara Institute of Canterbury, formed from the merger of Christchurch Polytechnic and Timaru's Aoraki. Its second-half head count is up 3.6 per cent from 1698 last year to 1759, but it "is not seeing a significant shift in response to the fees-free initiative".

Toi Ohomai, a merger of the Bay of Plenty and Waiariki institutes, reported only a 1 per cent second-half increase so far, with enrolments still coming in, and said this was mainly due to local economic growth rather than free fees.

Western Institute of Technology at Taranaki and Greymouth-based Tai Poutini reported unchanged enrolments, and Whangarei-based NorthTec said enrolments were up in some courses and down in others.

Wellington and Whitireia Institutes of Technology said July enrolments were "slightly below" last year's.

Invercargill-based Southern Institute of Technology, the only institute that was fees-free before Government policy changed, reported no increase for the second half-year and a 14 per cent drop in enrolments from school-leavers eligible for the national fees-free initiative.

Free study 'was the push I needed'

Nicola Carruthers:
Nicola Carruthers: "If I can do it, anyone can do it." Photo / Alan Gibson

New plumbing apprentice Nicola Carruthers says the fees-free initiative was what she needed to push her into trade training.

Carruthers, a Tauranga single mother of four, got up at 4am three days a week for six months to attend a pre-trade plumbing course at Waikato Institute of Technology (Wintec) in Hamilton this year.

She and the only other female student on the course beat 30 male classmates to win $1000 awards towards their tools from Felton Industries last week, and Carruthers is about to start an apprenticeship with another female plumber in Te Puke.

She said she would have done it some time anyway, but if the course hadn't been free she would probably not have done it so soon.

"I would have done it down the track because this is just something I'm quite passionate about, but it definitely was the kick I needed to do it as soon as I have done it," she said.

Carruthers, 32, studied psychology at Waikato University's Tauranga campus in 2013, but dropped it.

"I just became increasingly aware that it was not actually going to open career doors for me unless I ended up with a huge student loan," she said.

"Very gradually I started thinking that I should go into a trade, and then this fees-free initiative started and that was the push I needed."

She did not qualify for the Government's fees-free policy for new tertiary students because of the year she had spent at university, but she jumped at a Wintec decision to offer free pre-trades courses to all comers this year.

"I think I just heard through the grapevine. I'd be hearing Jacinda [Ardern] making statements about getting these people into trades," she said.

She chose plumbing "because it appeals to me, the combination of brain and using your hands". Her long-term goal is to start her own all-female multi-trades business.

She had to find friends to look after her four children aged 15, 9, 7 and 18 months.

"If I can do it, anyone can do it," she said.

"It's been a huge juggle, lots of support from family and friends. The kids came with me to the graduation and that was fantastic to see me get recognised for all the hard work and the sacrifices that they have had to make."