The coming election – Part 3: What would Labour do?

Election day minus 24 days. Early voting starts in 10 days.

I had intended to comment on the major parties’ policies for tertiary education together.  But as I write, Labour has released its policy, while National has released only three of its intentions – to reverse the government’s reforms of vocational education, to cancel the fees-free policy and to enhance aspects of IT training;  presumably, there is more to come.  So, a comment on National’s policy will have to wait.

This article looks only at Labour’s intentions for the system.

The headline … fees-free

Much of the media comment on Labour’s release has focused on the cancellation of the second and third phases of the phase-in of a universal entitlement to three years’ fees-free tertiary education.  Let’s deal with that first.

Fees-free was Labour’s flagship tertiary education policy at the 2017 election. The policy aimed to lift sagging enrolments while also reducing student debt.  Unsurprisingly, it was greeted warmly by students but criticised by the opposition and by commentators. Critics pointed out that government spending on tertiary education disproportionately benefits people from well-off families, and therefore, most of the money allocated to pay for the fees of first year students went to those with the least need for support  Critics also challenged Labour’s claim that removing fees would see enrolments rise by 15%. They pointed out that past experience – in New Zealand and in other similar countries – shows that tertiary participation is not sensitive to fee levels.

The critics were right.  Enrolments in 2019 and in the first semester of 2020 were in line with forecasts made without allowing for the fees-free policy.  In other words, the evidence showed that fees-free had had zero measurable effect on participation.  A lot of money for no gain. And embarrassment as the government had to announce that it was having to redirect much of the money provided for the expected enrolment growth.

So, the first year of tertiary education remains fees-free, but the plan to extend it to the second and third years is off.

In announcing Labour’s policy on 15 September, Chris Hipkins wouldn’t concede that fees-free was a failure.  Rather, he argued that the pandemic had led the government to reassess its priorities.

Verdict?  A very sensible move.  Winding back a flagship policy may have required courage.  But it would have been reckless to extend fees-free in the way originally planned.

The centre-piece … vocational education

Unsurprisingly, Labour sees the completion of the reforms of vocational education – the RoVE programme – as the major focus of its work in the coming term.   RoVE represents massive upheaval.  The proposed structure is complex.  There will be a need for cultural change to ensure that the system can serve industry and employer needs while lifting training quality.  Getting the balance right between centralisation and devolution to the regional branches – the 16 old polytechnics – will be critical.  So will the detail of the new integrated vocational education funding system.  The potential benefits of the new system are considerable but there is scope for things to go badly wrong.  The stakes are high.  This is rightly the centrepiece for an incoming minister. 

Labour’s policy sees a continuation of the commitments to provide extra support for apprenticeship training made in response to the pandemic recession – especially, the support for employers to keep on their apprentices.  The evidence shows that, in past recessions, New Zealand has seen big reductions in industry training, leading to shortages of skills that have hampered recovery when the country comes out of recession.

Verdict? Sensible, especially given the risks involved.

Two gems

Labour’s policy has two important innovations. 

Youth transitions: The evidence is clear: some of the current programmes designed to support disadvantaged young people to get into training or work are just not working.  As we approach a severe downturn, this is a critical matter.  The Labour policy states that New Zealand needs “a stronger and more joined-up youth transitions ‘safety net’, particularly for those young people at risk of falling through the cracks…”  Hear, hear!  This will be a difficult task and it will take time.  But it’s urgent and needs to get started as soon as possible.

Work-integrated learning (WIL):  The policy states that a Labour government will review the funding system “… to introduce a stronger focus on work-integrated learning across a broader range of disciplines”.   While WIL is the basis of much vocational education, it has had only sporadic uptake in New Zealand, especially in universities. Some professional and applied fields, like nursing, teaching, and medicine, have a long tradition of WIL. Other areas (like many agricultural and engineering qualifications) have mandatory practical work requirements – which is not quite the same thing as having a work placement as a fully-integrated component of the delivery of the programme.  For the most part, the use of WIL is dependent on the enthusiasm of individual teachers, departments or institutions.  Contrast that with Canada and the US where WIL is seen as a prestige higher education pathway in all fields of study.  And research shows that, if managed well, WIL can play an important role in the student’s learning, providing important professional development that endures beyond the study period.  If managed well … meaning good WIL needs a professional approach.  And that may need resourcing.

Verdict?: Very promising!  The devil will be in the detail but … it’s great to see these important areas highlighted in a major party’s commitments.

A question not answered in the policy

One important unanswered question in Labour’s policy is international education.  Yes, there is reference to the Strategic Recovery Plan for international education.  But what really matters is the when, the where and the how of the resumption of international education.  Without a resumption, institutions and other providers are looking more and more brittle.

An overall verdict?

Labour’s 2017 tertiary education policy was the result of nine long years in opposition.  It was a set of disconnected commitments to reverse the previous government’s changes, plus one poorly thought-out flagship policy – fees-free. 

For the 2020 election, Labour has developed a coherent set of policy priorities. As one might expect from the current minister and the current governing party, it responds to the challenges the system faces. 

In most elections, not too many people change their votes on the basis of tertiary education policy.  In 2020, there are big economic and public health issues that people will focus on.  So, this policy may not swing too many votes.  But it does lay out a sensible way forward for the system.

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