The coming election – Part 5: NZ First

NZ First released all of its policies – across 39 portfolio areas – in one hit.  A slick, classy-looking[1] 42 page booklet that hit our screens 48 hours before the polls opened. 

Even if NZ First’s polling hadn’t collapsed, there was no way the party could have formed a government.  So, they had the freedom to invent any policy they liked, safe in the knowledge that it would never be implemented.  But did they – like the Greens and ACT – lay out any tertiary education items to put on the table in the (increasingly unlikely) event they get called during coalition negotiations?

There is no doubt that NZ First has the most extravagant, student-friendly tertiary education policy of all the parties.  But how good is it?

Upfront investment – fees and loans

At its heart is the Upfront Investment Tertiary policy.  In plain language, that means fees-free.  This would be implemented, if NZ First were ruling the Beehive, “as quickly as possible”.  And that would be complemented by a “universal living allowance” for full-time students, not subject to parental means-testing.

The purpose of this is to ensure that students don’t face debt and to “remove our dependence on the importation of skilled labour”.

And they plan to allow graduates in fields (unspecified) of high workforce demand to settle “a year’s worth of debt” for a year’s full-time paid work in that field.

Verdict? These are all very expensive measures.  They are very regressive.  The idea that free tertiary education would reduce immigration is fanciful. Cancelling debt in exchange for work is pure dead-weight; it is an expensive way of persuading people to do what they would have done anyway.  Bad policy all round.

Student voice

NZ First wants to improve student engagement by giving students a greater say in their learning.  They want to implement the recommendations of the NZUSA/Ako Aotearoa report Student Voice in Tertiary Education Settings: Quality Systems in Practice. They want to add a focus on systems for student advocacy to institutional quality assurance processes.

Verdict?   It is hard to disagree with this initiative.  It has been costed (at only $0.4 million a year), suggesting that this initiative has been prepared as a coalition negotiating chip.

First in Family scholarships

NZ First has promoted “First in Family” scholarships over several elections.

Verdict?  Scholarships of this kind sound just so good.  Research shows that family finances aren’t a significant barrier to access; rather, non-participation has been shown to be associated with parental education.  So, first in family scholarships are often presented as addressing the access barrier. But it’s not that simple. Research shows that a cluster of factors are associated with non-participation in tertiary education – but these are all dwarfed by school achievement.  If they are to be effective, interventions based on parental education need to be made much earlier, before the young person enters secondary school.  

And in any case, a scholarship wouldn’t cut it.  If the problem isn’t money, why address it with a monetary intervention?  Scholarships have a history of not working.  Similar scholarships didn’t work when Steve Maharey was minister; why would they work now?

But this is also costed ($68 million over three years[2]) so we can assume it is also a possible bargaining chip.

Research/industry postgraduate alliances and scholarships

Having revived scholarships that didn’t work for the Clark government, NZ First has also revived a plan that didn’t work for the Shipley government – the 1999 Enterprise Scholarship scheme. 

Verdict?  These schemes, under which postgraduate students work in a research organisation or on research projects in industry sound wonderful.  The history, however, is checkered.

Teacher training

NZ First wants to re-establish teachers’ colleges, presumably by reversing the absorption of the six former colleges of education by their neighbouring universities.  The rationale? NZ First believes that there are “deficiencies in many initial teacher training courses”.

Verdict?  Part of the original reason for the mergers (which occurred between 1991 and 2007) related to the adequacy of initial teacher education programmes.  It’s not at all clear that de-mergers would lead to better quality. If these programmes are of low quality, wouldn’t it be wiser (and less disruptive and much less expensive) to address the quality issues? Without the structural change?

Careers education and guidance

De-merging doesn’t end with the colleges of education.  NZ First wants to reverse the absorption of Careers NZ by the TEC.  The reason?  Because there is no agency responsible for careers advice after secondary school.    

Verdict?  The sole reason advanced for this move is that there is a gap – schools advise their students, tertiary providers advise their students but it appears no one is responsible for advising people who are not students. That is not, repeat not, a reason to unpick the painful take-over of Careers NZ by the TEC. My perception is that the TEC is making excellent progress in this area – including preparing on-line resources that can be used by anyone, students or not. Their resources stack up well internationally.  The TEC recently sought advice on how to enhance these resources further.  For goodness sake!  What on earth can NZ First be thinking?   

For the rest …

… it is mainly arguing for the status quo – supporting apprenticeships, that sort of thing.  Oddly, there is no explicit mention of RoVE, the centrepiece of the current government’s work in this portfolio.  Does NZ First have qualms about the polytechnic merger?  Or is this because the 2020 policy statement appears to be a rehash of the 2014 policy?

Overall verdict

This is an object lesson in how not to put together a tertiary education policy. 

[1] Classy looking, but in an irritating format that denies the reader the right to download the document and gives limited rights to print.

[2] Amusingly, the costing is for the three years 2015 to 2017.  From that I assume that NZ First, like the Greens, doesn’t bother to update their policies from election to election.  Like the Greens, much of their 2020 election policy is actually their 2014 election policy.

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