The coming election – Part 1

Election day minus 43 days. Early voting starts in 29 days.

Discussion of the coming election has rightly focused on the two big issues of the time – the pandemic and the recession.  Other areas of policy – such as tertiary education – attract public attention only when they touch on the two major questions. 

But there is more at stake in this election for those in tertiary education.

In this series, I look at what the parties in the current parliament say about tertiary education – what they might do or what they may put on the table in coalition negotiations. 

It’s still early in the campaign cycle.  There are policy announcements to come once the house rises (again!) and once the campaign begins in earnest.  But already, the parties are drip-feeding policies.  There’s a lot we can infer about the final policies from the material already out there.

Part 1 in this series looks at the two major parties.  Act and the Greens are in Part 2.  (NZ First would have been there too had its website had any material on tertiary education).  Part 3 will be an update, taking account of last minute policy announcements.

The Labour Party

As the lead party in the incumbent government coalition, Labour’s policy on tertiary education is – understandably – built around a continuation of its current work. 

Vocational education

The headline item is vocational education.  Labour’s website states that they will “… continue to reform New Zealand’s vocational education sector to ensure it can respond well to skills shortages and prepare for the changing labour market.” 

The vocational education policy is not just focused on the reforms to the structure and funding of the vocational education and training –  RoVE.  Labour also intends to continue support for access to apprenticeship and trades training for people displaced by the recession and to help young people gain entry requirements in order to access trades training. 

Labour also emphasises the success of Mana in Mahi, the programme that subsidises employers who take on disadvantaged young people and provide them with work-relevant training.

This makes a coherent package.  It makes a lot of sense.  There is widespread recognition of the importance of, and the need for, powering up the vocational education system.  The measures to increase access to trades training as the recession loomed were wise and well-received, particularly the support to ensure that apprentices would continue to be taken on, even if employers found work drying up. 

The RoVE reforms have had a mixed reception to date – inevitable given how many staff will be displaced and given the disruption to local interests.  As well, the structure is very complicated and likely to carry high transaction costs.  Having multiple organisations with inter-connected decision-making rights risks blurred accountability. 

But it’s a complex programme; it’s too early to pass judgement.  Only when the new unified funding model is rolled out, only when the balance of power is worked out between the head office of the NZ Institute of Skills and Technology (NZIST), the regional NZIST campuses, the Workforce Development Councils (WDCs), the Regional Skills Leadership Groups (RSLGs), Te Taumata Aronui, Centres of Vocational Excellence (CoVEs), NZQA and the TEC, only when we can judge what – if any – difference the new system has made to the capability of those graduating, only then will we know if this design addresses the decades-old problems with the vocational training system.

What else is there?

Labour’s policy makes only one other commitment – to reverse the funding changes made in 2009 to what the party calls “night classes”, non-formal community education programmes for personal interest, hobby classes, such as travellers’ Italian and community choirs.  This commitment revives a promise the party made – but has yet to act on – in its 2017 manifesto.  This initiative won’t cost much but it will deliver less.  It’s regressive, largely benefiting well-off people.     

Comparing the 2020 policy with 2017

At the 2017 election, Labour’s tertiary education policy offered the sort of menu one would expect of a party languishing nine years in opposition.  It included that long “to undo” list, commitments to reverse all the changes – the good as well as the bad – made by the previous government.  Restoring student allowances eligibility for postgraduate students.  Restoring staff and student members on councils of tertiary education institutions.  Restoring “night classes”. And it included concessions made to pressure groups – such as yet another review of the PBRF – the fourth such review in 15 years. 

And it included two flagship items.  One was the first phase of the fees-free initiative, paying tuition fees for all first-year students in tertiary education, with the second and third phases signalled for the 2020 and 2023 elections. The second lead item was to reduce the number of international students studying at lower qualification levels, part of a broader contraction of immigration.

And what has Labour done in government? 

Nearly all of it.  Phase one of fees-free failed to deliver the enrolment increases that the policy sought, but it was implemented.  International education collapsed, but largely as a result of the pandemic, rather than government policy; it is clear that the government was already moderating the policy before the pandemic.  The PBRF has been reviewed, the report has been published and we are waiting on the result of consultation on the recommendations.  Institution councils now must include student and staff representatives.

But student allowances for postgraduates is off the agenda.  It is a regressive measure – it transfers resources to a very privileged group of people who are likely to be among the highest earners in the labour market.   The government response to the NZUSA petition in 2019 makes it clear that the government now sees this as a lower priority item.

What is missing?

The most surprising thing is that there is no reference on the Labour policy web-site to the two flagship policies from 2017.  Nothing on fees-free, no commitment to implement phase two of the grand plan, no comment on phase one (though probably couldn’t be reversed now without enormous reputational and political damage).  No comment on international education (although the Minister recently outlined the government’s policy ideas about the future of international education).  Are these two items being held back for a later campaign announcement? Or …?

There is nothing in the policy on the tertiary education recommendations of the recent Productivity Commission report Technological Change and the Future of Work.  Nor is there anything to deal with the Youth Guarantee programme, despite clear evidence of policy failure

And there is nothing on student financial support, other than a reminder that the government increased student loan borrowing entitlements in response to the pandemic and that it lifted allowances and student loan living cost borrowing entitlements in 2017 by $50 a week.


At this point – with further announcements likely on the horizon – it is a succinct, coherent package. On international education, we need to look at Minister Chris Hipkins’ recent announcements and the associated Cabinet papers.  It’s just a shame to see a further commitment to fund lower-value community education.

The National Party

Any opposition party preparing to face the electorate faces two possible traps.  The first is to promise to reverse nearly everything the government has done. The second is to announce a major flagship policy without the benefit of expert critical advice.

As it began to put together its policy for 2020, the National Party may have learned from its predecessor in opposition.  In 2017, the Labour opposition fell into both traps.  I discussed above its long “to undo” list which set out to reverse it all, the good as well as the bad.  And its flagship fees-free policy, released without road-testing or expert critique, was always doomed to miss its targets, leaving the government with an embarrassing, expensive problem.

The National Party aimed to mitigate the risk of these traps by releasing a 56-page education policy discussion paper in late 2019 that posed questions to test possible ideas and help refine the party’s 2020 election policy.  That discussion paper – now not available on National’s website – looked at four policy areas: fees, university performance, careers education and the government’s vocational education reforms.

Of those, only vocational education has survived.  And National has added a new policy area in response to the pandemic: Restarting International Education.  The website tells us that other policies may be added later, but these two make a start. 

Restarting international education

National would allow tertiary education providers to bring international students into New Zealand, under strict quarantine and testing protocols.  Students would be isolated and/or quarantined at facilities managed by providers to standards certified and audited by the Ministry of Health.

Work-rights for new students would be reduced, so as to avoid displacing New Zealanders in a difficult job market.

The policy recognises that NZ’s success in managing COVID-19 has given it a comparative advantage in the international market over rival countries but that the edge we have now won’t last long.

The policy makes sense, but no one should imagine that managing the isolation and quarantine systems will be straightforward for institutions.  Our experience of the last month tells us that it is terribly, terribly complicated and fraught with risks. The biggest uncertainty would be whether the cautious Ministry of Health officials, the previous failures etched into their minds, would be prepared to certify many institutional facilities as suitable for isolation or quarantine.

Reversing the reforms of vocational education

National is promising to reverse the reforms of vocational education – to disestablish the NZIST, to re-establish industry training organisations (ITOs), to restore the autonomy of the polytechnics, to reverse the transfer of staff employment agreements.  To wipe out the WDCs and the RSLGs just as they get off the ground.

Their reasoning?  The party argues that, as the recession beds in, and as demand for vocational education grows, it is important to focus the sector – and its resources – on learners, rather than on questions of structure, management and organisation.  National is worried about the cost of the new structure and about bureaucracy which, they argue, “…will be less nimble and effective than our current, decentralised system.” 

The problem with that is that the “current decentralised system” has not worked well for many years.  Polytechnics have been unable to operate financially in the current funding system.  There have been questions about the effectiveness of some ITOs and of the quality of some industry training.  Reversing the reforms doesn’t solve the problems; rather, it risks triggering a new programme of reorganisation and fresh problem-solving.  It would deflect the sector’s attention from its mission in much the same way that the RoVE reforms have.  

The present government’s reforms are very ambitious.  They are not perfect.  The crucial part of the puzzle – the unified funding model – is necessary to get the system functioning well and that has still not appeared. There is a very long way to go and there is much refinement of rough edges needed before we see the new model operating as intended.  But unpicking completely?   That is brave policy!

What is missing?

Three of the four themes in the 2019 National policy discussion paper have either been dropped or are still to be announced. 

Of those, the most critical, by far, is the question of how to help disengaged young people into appropriate, work-focused training and onto career paths.  We have seen clear evidence that the Youth Guarantee fees-free programme has not delivered the outcomes it was designed for.  Yet it remains the main pathway open to some of the most educationally disadvantaged people in the system.  Any party that is serious about forming part of the next government needs to have this problem on its radar.

And, like Labour, the National Party hasn’t yet done anything on the Productivity Commission’s report Technological Change and the Future of Work.


It’s good to see an opposition party present a manifesto with a clear focus on a few important policies.  Restarting international education – despite the risks and difficulties – is a good place to start.  Reversing the government’s ambitious programme of reforms of vocational education?  That is an ambitious move!

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