COMMENT:

Labour's year of free university study is an expensive flop.

The policy should never have been introduced. But, it has. The good news is there's still time to stop it getting even more expensive. The Government can — and should — cancel the free second and third year it's planning.

On a generous day, you can sort of excuse the Government for initially ploughing ahead with the harebrained idea. Labour so badly wanted to get back into government, it was prepared to try anything. It wanted to create a youthquake like the one that had shaken Britain up just a few months earlier. Or copy Helen Clark's interest-free student loans re-election winner in 2005. So, Labour concocted the policy in a fit of desperation.

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But Labour never thought they'd actually have to follow through and deliver on the excessive election bribe.

But then Jacinda Ardern happened, and they were in power. And in those frenzied, confusing, still-trying-to-find-the-bathroom first days in government, you can again forgive Labour. Because, things were very shambolic. And you can see how a normally rational person might have thought it was a good idea to roll out this stupid policy.

But now, here we are, more than a year in, things have settled down, and the truth is blinding. This policy is a flop every which way you look at it. An extremely expensive one at that.

All the figures out this week show we're wasting our money. The first year has cost us $236 million. And it's money we didn't need to spend. Because these kids were going to go to uni anyway.

Labour thought people would be breaking down the gate to get into uni once it was free. They said 80,000 students would be eligible.

But 80,000 didn't turn up. Only 42,000 did. And that's a lower enrolment rate than last year when kids were paying.

The fact is tertiary education in New Zealand is actually extremely affordable. On average, it only takes six years to pay off a student loan. That's not anything like a financial burden. Not when you compare it to a 30-year mortgage.

Chances are, the kids we've helped into university were going to study anyway. So we've just given them a freebie for no real reason.

Labour didn't even need to reward them for voting Labour. There was no youthquake in the end. So, it's not as if scores of young people would feel ripped off that they gave their vote but didn't get their treats.

If the point of the policy was to help disadvantaged kids make it into uni, it doesn't look like that's even worked. It's mostly white kids taking up the policy with gusto. Māori and Pasifika don't seem have taken up the opportunity to quite the same degree. Which probably isn't what we all envisioned when Labour announced this policy.

Is that what this government is about? When it says it has no money, it throws money at the middle class? First, helping a graduate doctor and her partner into their first home. Now, helping white teenagers avoid paying off a student loan.

It's going to end up costing us $2.8 billion a year to help mostly white kids study. That's actually more than all of the teachers in this country are asking for. If asked to choose between subsidising students and paying teachers properly, you bet most people would choose the latter.

If Labour is truly pressed for cash and truly responsible with the country's finances, it should cancel its plan to make the second and third year of study free.

The students don't need it. Give it to the teachers. Or the nurses. Or the midwives. Or the police. Or anyone who actually needs it.