The coming election – Part 2: the minor parties

Election day minus 36 days. Early voting starts in 22 days.

Part 1 in this series looked at the two major parties.  This article looks at the smaller parties in Parliament – the Greens and the ACT Party.  NZ First has yet to release any policy – beyond a few of its now-traditional “bottom lines” but they don’t involve tertiary education.   

The minor parties

Minor parties have a rare luxury; if they are lucky enough to enter coalition negotiations, it will be in the hope of becoming junior partner to one of the two major parties. That means that they have the freedom to create policies that reflect broad philosophical principles, confident that they won’t ever have to think about the hard, messy task of translating those principles into practice.  They are more than happy to leave the heavy lifting to their senior coalition partners.

And alongside their statement of principles, they can add one or two issues du jour – topical, high-profile matters that can appeal to their support base and that can be used as bargaining chips in coalition negotiations. That play-book has been successful for ACT in education during coalition negotiations in the past – the Donna Awatere reading programme, voluntary student association membership, charter schools.

And that’s exactly the approach that the Green Party and the ACT Party have taken to their tertiary education policies for the 2020 campaign.

The Green Party
The overall policy

The Green Party’s tertiary education policy hasn’t changed much from its 2014 election policy – the document history in small print at the bottom of the page makes clear that the 2020 policy is a re-issue of the 2014 version.  That leads the party into some unfortunate places.  For instance, they call for a “comprehensive review” of the PBRF – when the current PBRF review is still going through consultation and when the government has yet to make decisions on the review’s 34 recommendations.  Is that because the Greens are convinced that the current review has gone so far off-script?  Or was the Greens policy office unaware of the PBRF review? Or is it (more likely) that they didn’t take the trouble to update their policy properly? 

Ditto the commitment to review “the equivalent full-time student funding system” – without acknowledging that the system is actually, already, under review for vocational education.

The policy direction

The Greens policy statement opens with the declaration that tertiary education “… is primarily a public good”. 

That statement flies in the face of the evidence – in fact, individuals capture a very substantial private benefit from tertiary education; the higher the qualification, the higher the gain.  Yes, there is certainly a public, economic and social benefit from having a highly educated population.  But those with a higher education make a substantial return on their investment and also gain non-financial advantages.    As well, the public spending on tertiary education is disproportionately captured by higher income families.  That is, government spending on tertiary education is regressive – it transfers resources from lower income families to those on higher incomes – one of very few social policy interventions that favours the rich at the expense of the poor.

That opening statement of principle underpins the main thrust of the Greens’ tertiary education policy.  The party argues that student allowances should become progressively universal and untargeted. And the government should work towards “free” tertiary education (meaning no fees for students).  Both these goals would exacerbate the regressive nature of tertiary education spending.  The Green ideal would be middle-class heaven.

The party also wants limits on private tertiary education, when much of the private sector focus is on educationally disadvantaged people.  

The issue du jour

… for the Greens is student financial support.  In the wake of the pandemic, the Green Party wants each student to have a guaranteed income of $325 a week.  In effect, this is an immediate move to a universal and much higher student allowance.  More regressive thinking.  And more expensive thinking.  The landlords of Wellington, Dunedin and Auckland will be salivating at the opportunity to raise rents if the Greens policy were to come to pass.

What is missing?

Vocational education is the most pressing issue on the minds of major parties in the 2020 election.  It is entirely missing from the Greens policy statement – there is not a single word about it.

The likely emerging tertiary education challenge for the next government – of whatever hue – is addressing the problems faced by educationally disadvantaged young people, those at risk of long-term limited employment.  Something to replace the failed Youth Guarantee fees-free programme.  As we enter a severe recession, the Greens policy statement doesn’t even acknowledge that such people exist.

Overall?

Of the parties in the Parliament, the Greens have been the most consistent in their advocacy for the disadvantaged in society.  Their tertiary education policy, loaded in favour of middle-class young people who attend universities, is at odds with the party’s direction.

The ACT Party
The overall policy

The ACT Party’s education policy has, at its centre, a proposal to create individual lifetime learner accounts, with each person receiving a credit of $12,000 a year from age 2 to age 18 and then a credit of $30,000 for post-secondary education and with half of all students also receiving an additional $50,000 scholarship credit.

The learning account credits would replace funding for teaching and learning; early childhood services, schools and tertiary education organisations would receive their funding by way of payments from the learning accounts of people who enrol with them. Students who want to take more, or more costly, tertiary education could borrow through a new government loan scheme (at a real interest rate) to cover any shortfall in their learner accounts. 

Fees would be deregulated.  Competition would be encouraged. The learner accounts would be available for students’ living costs as well as for tuition costs. They would also be available for professional development programmes or other forms of lifelong learning. 

Funding for non-student-led items, such as research, would remain as at present. 

The proposal is presented as broadly fiscally neutral once it is phased in.  According to my estimates, it is slightly more generous than current funding – costing more than $14 billion a year once it is fully phased in, replacing annual expenditure of around $13 billion (in present year values).  However, it is likely that some tertiary education students would end up borrowing more (and paying a real rate of interest) from the loan scheme[1].

There are lots of questions about how this plan would play out in practice – how it would affect individuals’ decision-making, whether it would work for educationally disadvantaged people and whether it would operate as ACT expects for lifelong learning.  As well, voucher-style systems, such as this, have usually faced tough political opposition.  ACT’s plan – with its focus on competition between providers, and relatively loose regulation – is not unlike the deregulated system that we operated in the 1990s and that had some perverse outcomes and that drew intense public dissatisfaction.

ACT can promote a policy drawn from the party’s philosophical principles, knowing that it won’t be implemented while the Labour and National share a commitment to the principles that underpin the current system, a system that derives, ultimately, from the reforms of 2000-2003, and that balances government steering and oversight with competitive elements, institutional autonomy and a student-welfare focus.   

The issue du jour …

… is freedom of speech. Taking its lead from higher education freedom of speech debates in North America, Australia and the UK, and responding to the controversy over Massey University’s cancellation of a speech by Don Brash (and other controversial events), ACT promises to protect academic freedom.  The policy commits to developing “a mandatory code of practice” for institutions to meet free speech obligations and to reduce funding for institutions that don’t comply with the code.

It’s a low-cost item – so expect this to be high on the agenda in the event that ACT is in coalition negotiations come 20 October.

What is missing?

A broad principles-led policy statement reduces the need for a party to have to define a position on the challenges that face the system.  There is no specific reference to vocational education, no mention of the situation of youth at risk of limited employment.  The future of work and its implications for the tertiary education system are referenced only in passing.

A bit like the Greens, really.

Overall?

This is the policy one would expect from ACT.  It is coherent and drawn directly from the party’s principles.  It selects a single, simple, low-cost issue to lay on the negotiating table, should the party enter coalition talks.  The classic minor-party playbook.   


[1] Under the ACT plan, a three-year BSc degree at the University of Auckland would generate a liability of more than $23,000 a year (a tuition fee of about $7,500 to $8,200, a services levy of $940 and the current government contribution of $14,000 at present rates) or around $69,000 for the whole programme.  If a student fails and repeats a class, adds a postgraduate year, adds living costs of (say) $8,000 pa, the bill goes up and may exceed the government learner account contribution, even if the student gets the additional scholarship learning account top-up of $50,000 proposed by ACT.

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