This time last week, Labour leader Andrew Little announced in his state of the nation speech that come the glorious day when Labour is elected Government, tertiary education will be free.

To be specific, the first three years of tertiary education will be paid for by the taxpayer.

Taxpayers already pay up to 70 per cent of a students' fees but Little says if Labour has its way, New Zealanders will pick up the entire course costs for three years.

The policy continues a tradition of Labour looking after students (or enticing young people or bribing first-time voters -- insert whichever you think applicable).


Remember former Labour leader Helen Clark announcing on the eve of the 2005 election that interest on student loans would be scrapped if the student remained in New Zealand? That surely helped her party get over the line and remain in Government.

It was Clark's enthusiastic promotion of a knowledge economy that inculcated the belief in a generation of young people that they needed a degree for any chance of success.

Which is bollocks, of course.

There are plenty of phenomenally successful self-made men and women who have built multimillion-dollar businesses on their wits, sweat and entrepreneurial acumen. They don't need degrees to succeed.

There is no doubt, however, that education is a way out of poverty. And that, increasingly, we're becoming a two-tier society where the haves can perpetuate their opportunities through the next generation and the have nots struggle to lift their kids up.

When my daughter went to uni, we paid her fees. She was an only child, both of us were working, and I wanted her to begin her working life without the burden of a student loan around her neck. We know and she knows she was lucky.

One of her friends, a bright and engaging young man, had to drop out of uni. He had a younger brother and his mum was a single parent and often he would be in the position of caregiver for his brother.

He lived four sections on the bus away from uni and the bus fares alone would have crippled him. He couldn't move away from home and closer to university because his family needed him.

As it is, he has gone on and done well in his chosen career. He worked for nothing until he worked his way into a job and, by all accounts, he is happy and doing well.

Another young man in my daughter's cohort worked in hospitality while his mates went off to uni. Now, eight years later, he is doing brilliantly and is the only one who owns a house.

So a degree is not essential for success.

But it can help and the thought that bright, hard-working young people might miss out on achieving their full potential through a lack of opportunity is anathema to me.

I'm wary of all young people being herded into tertiary institutions, however.

When Steven Joyce became National's Tertiary Education Minister, he released figures showing more than 50 per cent of students who begin bachelor degrees failed to finish them within five years -- suggesting more than half who began the courses failed or dropped out.

That's a lot of money wasted but under the present scheme, it means the student bears some of the cost of the failure. Remember the taxpayer is picking up 60-70 per cent of course costs already, but under the loans scheme, the student has some responsibility to achieve.

Under Labour's proposal, the taxpayer would be expected to pay the lot and for what return on their investment? If Labour is going to make tertiary education free, as it was -- up to a point -- for previous generations, then entry to universities and technical institutes needs to be made more exclusive -- as it was for previous generations.

When I studied journalism in Wellington, 60 students were accepted from more than 500 applicants. It was much the same for most courses and degrees. There was a pre-selection process and those who got in had their costs paid.

If we want to maintain the current open slather, where it's all about bums on seats and not the calibre of the student, we cannot afford free education for all.

I would love to see the money allocated to bright, hard-working students with a passion for their chosen field of study instead of being wasted on people who don't want to be at uni or are only there while they work out what they really want to do.

Pay their course costs, pay their living expenses if need be. There is nothing wrong with a university being elitist -- provided it's all about intellectual elitism and not about offering seats in lecture halls to those who can afford it.Kerre McIvor is on NewstalkZB, weekdays,