At least 55 apprentices who enrolled in the weeks before fees-free tertiary study took effect last year have been forced to pay fees - even though they didn't start studying until after the fees-free policy came in.

Te Awamutu electrical apprentice Ryan Scott, 19, says the policy is unfair to apprentices even though they stand to get much less out of the fees-free policy than university students.

He pays $42 a week in apprenticeship fees out of his wages, which started at $530 and are still only $670 a week after tax.

In contrast, his best friend studying biomedical science at the University of Auckland didn't have to pay any fees in his first year, saving $6000 .

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"So it's just a bit unfair, I think," he said.

The Skills Organisation , which runs electrical apprenticeships, said Scott was one of its 55 apprentices who missed out on free fees "due to administrative technicalities, i.e. signing up in the weeks prior to the scheme's launch in late 2017 but not commencing their first polytech course until early in 2018".

Garry Fissenden says Ryan Scott is one of 55 Skills Organisation apprentices who didn't get free fees because they enrolled before January 2018 but started studying after that date. Photo / File
Garry Fissenden says Ryan Scott is one of 55 Skills Organisation apprentices who didn't get free fees because they enrolled before January 2018 but started studying after that date. Photo / File

The organisation's chief executive Garry Fissenden said he "spotted this issue early and raised it several times".

"The unintended consequence of the rigid fees-free eligibility criteria has been to disadvantage some apprentices at a time where attracting young Kiwis into trades is critical to address the skills shortages," he said.

Scott actually started working for Chris Mylchreest Electrical in mid-2017 as a labourer so that he could see whether he liked the work.

"Towards the end of that year I talked to the boss and we decided that I was going to begin an apprenticeship at the start of 2018," he said.

"But in order to get it done on time, we enrolled and got ready to do it in November 2017."

His course towards a NZ Certificate in Electrical Engineering Theory and Practice (Trade) didn't start until February 2018, and he said he didn't start any of the practical tasks required until then either.

"You don't start those until you have been in the job for at least a year or two years because you need to be competent before you start doing them," he said.

The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) says industry trainees are eligible for their fees to be paid for the first two years - one year longer than fulltime tertiary students because industry trainees work fulltime and study in their spare time.

Scott expects his apprenticeship to take three years, costing him about $6600 all-up or $2200 a year. He hoped to save $4400 of that through the fees-free policy, but was turned down.

He applied for a review, and a TEC spokesman told the Herald that his case was "still under review".

"The test we use to check when a programme 'commenced' is when the industry training organisation (ITO) received funding for the learner," he said.

"In Ryan's case, his ITO received funding for his enrolment in 2017. This was the basis for the original decision.

"We apologise for the delay it has taken to resolve this matter. We understand it must be frustrating for Ryan and his family. We have taken his circumstances seriously and given his case every consideration. We will look to convey a final decision to Ryan as soon as possible."

Only 2572 apprentices and industry trainees were accepted under the fees-free policy up to last August - less than 3 per cent of the 100,675 trainees in that month, most of whom started training well before January 2018.

For comparison, 38,755 fulltime students in universities, polytechnics and other training institutions were accepted as fees-free, 13 per cent of all 292,472 fulltime students.

More than two-thirds of the apprentices and industry trainees approved for fees-free were in the booming construction industry. Building and Construction Industry Training Organisation chief executive Warwick Quinn said 40 per cent of his new sign-ups were eligible for fees-free.

Josh Williams says most new apprentices and industry trainees have already done other tertiary study before deciding to change course. Photo / File
Josh Williams says most new apprentices and industry trainees have already done other tertiary study before deciding to change course. Photo / File

Industry Training Federation director Josh Williams said 57 per cent of people who started industry training in 2017 already had another tertiary qualification, so they were shut out of fees-free by a rule barring anyone who already had 60 credits or half a year of equivalent full-time tertiary education.

Skills Active chief executive Grant Davidson said this rule shut out many of his trainees who had obtained NZ Certificates in previous seasonal or part-time work.

"This might be as a pool lifeguard for example, or a swimming instructor, a ski field worker or a retail assistant. Often these roles involve industry training and the achievement of a NZ Certificate," he said.

He said the Government eventually agreed that short industry training courses would not disqualify people from fees-free study from this year.

These issues helped reduce the total numbers approved for fees-free study across all sectors from a forecast 80,000 to an adjusted projection of 50,200 by the end of last year.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said last year's Budget provision of $1.57 billion for the fees-free policy in the four years to June 2022 had been cut by $197 million (12.6 per cent) because of the shortfall in eligible trainees. The money will be reallocated to vocational education reforms which are due to be decided by Cabinet in late June..