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Forget cancelling student fees. Let’s focus instead on fixing student welfare

With three out of the five parties in parliament keen on some form of free tertiary education, reform seems inevitable. That might be great news for graduates, writes Jack Close, but for students it’s a raw deal.

In June of this year I finished university with a student loan with way too many numbers at the end. Do I want to pay it back? Not really. Am I able to pay it back? Absolutely.

That’s because university graduates have more earning potential than their former student selves.

When we graduate and find our first jobs, we turn the benefit of study into income. We’re no longer students. As such, most of us no longer require the financial support we needed (but didn’t get) at university.

So why are three out of five parties in parliament claiming that we do?

In 1948 New Zealand signed the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which obliges the government to make “higher education equally accessible to all”. And rightly so – everyone benefits from an educated society, where citizens are engaged and productive.

But while tuition-free tertiary education may appear to make university more accessible, it does nothing of the sort.

Right now, not a single first-time student is required to make an upfront payment toward their fees. In fact, we could make university fee-free tomorrow, and it wouldn’t do anything to improve issues of accommodation, commuting, and socio-cultural barriers to study.

But it would make me better off as a graduate.

Students take part in a protest march in central London against university top-up fees, 2002. (Photo: Johnny Green – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, fee-free university would make no difference to students’ welfare. Yes, when they graduate, they’ll have more in their back pocket each time they get paid, but no – they’ll still be unable to afford rent, utilities, or food while they’re studying.

There’s a lot to be gained from the university experience. According to the Ministry of Education, a person with a bachelor degree or higher earns 161 percent more than those without. Is a student loan that stealthily comes out of your earnings alongside income tax the end of the world? Not really.

If politicians were serious about students’ issues they’d cut the shit about free tertiary education. Students need sufficient financial support and fully-funded mental health services, not a promise of a free ride once they graduate.

If they want to improve access, they’d consider the cost of accommodation for rural students or those from small towns who don’t enjoy the luxury of mum and dad living within driving distance to university. Or they’d emphasise increased allowances and living cost payments so that prospective students don’t have to decide between poverty and a university education.

Making university fee-free solves none of these problems.

In reality, graduates and students will both be rubbing their hands together at the prospect of free tertiary education. For graduates, it’ll be because their income just increased. For students, it’ll be because they’re freezing and still can’t afford to heat their flat – because “can I pay my power bill in three years’ time” doesn’t really cut it.


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