The Government is being accused of a "sneaky" shifting of the goalposts on one of its flagship policies, as Budget documents reveal a major change in focus for the fees-free study policy.

Documents from this year's Budget reveal a stark shift in the way the Government measures the success of the policy, which provides tertiary students with a year of free study.

The scheme was a cornerstone of Labour's 2017 election campaign.

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In 2018 and 2019, the performance measure for the scheme – how the Government measured the policy's success – was: "The percentage increase in first time domestic learners (including industry training) at level 3 and above".

In other words, how many new students went from high school into tertiary training, or university.

National has accused Government of shifting the goalposts on its fees-free policy. Above, Victoria University students at graduation in 2017. Photo / File
National has accused Government of shifting the goalposts on its fees-free policy. Above, Victoria University students at graduation in 2017. Photo / File

But, according to Budget 2020, that focus has been scrapped in lieu of a purely financial goal.

Documents show the performance measure is now: "Average fees-free payment per learner for first year of education."

That average fee is "at least $5,759" – meaning the Government rates the performance of the policy a success based on how much money is given out.

National's tertiary education spokesman Shane Reti said the shifting of the goalposts was a "further indictment of the fees-free policy".

"I think they are embarrassed and are now trying to justify the programme and give it another measure of success."

The policy has been plagued with issues from its outset.

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National's Whangarei MP Dr Shane Reti. Photo / Mark Mitchell
National's Whangarei MP Dr Shane Reti. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Figures from the Tertiary Education Commission in late 2018 revealed the number of students enrolled in tertiary education had actually fallen slightly on the year prior before the scheme was in place.

A year later, updated figures from the commission revealed that less than a third of tertiary students who benefited from the scheme were from decile 1 to 5 schools.

Asked about the shift in focus, Education Minister Chris Hipkins – who is in charge of the policy – said it has always been the policy's intent to make tertiary education more affordable.

"We also saw it as a way to halt the decline in domestic student enrolments over the previous years."

Hipkins pointed out that the original Cabinet paper on the fees-free policy said improving affordability and reducing student debt levels was a key objective of the scheme.

But, that same Cabinet paper also lists another key objective as "expanding access and participation, especially for those who have not previously studied or those for whom finance has been a real barrier to participation".

Reti said the Government tried to "sneak" the goalpost change through as quietly as possible.

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There was no announcement about the shift in the policy's performance measure – it could only be found on a table on page 205 of the Budget and comparing that with the same line item in the 2018 and 2019 Budgets.

"Now that they realise they have failed, they have changed the measure by which they assess themselves."

As to what happens next with the policy, that remains unclear.

"No decision has been made on future years of fees-free," Hipkins said.

He added that the Government was "more focused on the economic recovery after Covid-19".

He said the Government had announced a number of initiatives, such as the targeted investment support for free trades training.

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