A third of tertiary students who took up the Government's flagship fees-free policy failed or withdrew from at least one of their courses last year, Ministry of Education data shows.
The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) did not have details on how much the Government had spent on courses students failed or withdrew from.
But based on the 13,770 students who failed to complete at least one course, and the average course cost of $2800 for Student Achievement Component, the figure could be as high as $40 million.
Further information from the TEC showed that fees-free students tended to be younger, more likely to be NZ European, and more engaged in university-level study than non-fees-free students.
The Ministry of Education released the failure and withdrawal numbers to the Herald on Sunday after a request under the Official Information Act.
• 24 per cent of fees-free students, or 10,120 students, failed at least one course.
• 15 per cent of fees-free students, or 6180 students, withdrew from at least one course.
• 33 per cent of fees-free students, or 13,770 students, did not complete at least one course because of either failure or withdrawing.
The TEC said that the rate of failure or withdrawal from fees-free courses was lower than in 2017, when 37 per cent of a comparable group of students (18- to 19-year-olds starting study for the first time) failed or withdrew from a course.
"Any truly reliable analysis of the effects of fees-free on students' performance will require more full years of fees-free data," a TEC spokesperson said.
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Up to $50m paid for fees-free students who either failed or withdrew
"Based on the single 2018 full year of fees-free, however, we can say that the data does not support the idea that fees-free has had an adverse impact on student performance."
National Party tertiary education spokesman Shane Reti said the one-third figure was high and fees-free students may not care as much about passing because they had less skin in the game.
"If you don't pay for it, you don't care. What does it matter? You can fail and don't have the fiscal pressure of, 'I'm paying for this, I darn well better succeed'."
He noted a Canterbury University study from April that showed the fees-free policy had influenced one in three students' decision to enrol and 5.8 per cent said they would not have enrolled without the policy.
"Students who were more strongly influenced by the policy reported poorer academic self-efficacy, adjustment to university, subjective wellbeing, university satisfaction, and semester one Grade Point Average (GPA)," the study said.
But Education Minister Chris Hipkins welcomed the trend of fewer first-time students failing or withdrawing from courses.
"It's pleasing that course stats are moving in the right direction, although it will take longer and more data to establish the precise reason."
Labour had hoped that the fees-free policy would help those struggling to afford tertiary education, but the National Party has criticised it as helping students from wealthy families who would have gone to university anyway.
Neither the TEC nor the Education Ministry has information about the socio-economic status of fees-free students.
Demographic data from 2018 showed that they tended to be more engaged in university study than non-fees-free tertiary students.
• Fees-free students were 68 per cent NZ European, 17 per cent Māori, 12 per cent Pasifika and 15 per cent Asian.
• Non-fees-free students were 63 per cent NZ European, 21 per cent Māori, 9 per cent Pasifika and 15 per cent Asian.
• 53 per cent of fees-free students were enrolled in degree-level study, compared to 42 per cent of non-fees-free students.
• Unsurprisingly, most fees-free students (69 per cent) were aged 18 to 19, and 93 per cent of non-fees-free students were over 20.
• Fees-free students were 59 per cent women and 41 per cent men, similar to non-fees-free students (60 per cent women, 40 per cent men).
Hipkins added that he was pleased to see a 20 per cent reduction in the number of students borrowing for tuition fees compared to 2017, or 31,600 fewer student borrowers.
The total amount borrowed for student loans decreased by $115m compared with 2017, a 7.4 per cent reduction.
• fees borrowing was down by $194.2m
• course-related costs borrowing was down by $8.7m
• living costs borrowing increased by $87.9m (because the maximum student loan living cost entitlement increased by $50 a week).
Overall tertiary student numbers dropped from 310,000 in 2017 to 305,920 in 2018, and the 42,150 fees-free students fell well short of the anticipated 80,000 that Labour had expected.
The $200m in savings from the lower-than-expected uptake has been put towards the Government's reforms of the vocational education sector.
Labour's original policy was to extend fees-free to cover two years' worth of fees after 2020, and then three years from 2023, but the Government has not allocated any funding for that.