Graduates from the University of Auckland in 2018 (Getty Images)

The Bulletin: Full fees free policy rollout in doubt

Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Doubt cast on full rollout of fees free tertiary education policy, Vodafone NZ sale analysed, and Tamihere proposes partial port privatisation.

The fees free policy for tertiary students may not get fully rolled out. Currently, the first year of study is free, and funding for the next two years to be free is due arrive in increments until 2024. But speaking to Stuff’s Hamish Rutherford, finance minister Grant Robertson opened the door to those expansions of the policy being cancelled or changed. A decision will be made closer to the time, and it’s unlikely to be before the next election. The policy applies not only to universities, but also polytechs and industry training providers.

The fees free policy has been cast into doubt by a range of factors. Student enrolment numbers are below expectations, and Mr Robertson says a major reason is low unemployment, so potential students are working. The high cost of living and rent especially would also make a job more attractive. The figures mean the government has actually underspent on the policy to the tune of about $197 million, and that money has now been redirected into other areas of the vocational training sector. That’s part of a wider package of savings in low priority spending being trumpeted by the government, which the NZ Herald reports is worth around $1.2 billion.

But would it be the worst thing for the fees free scheme’s expansion to be scrapped, or altered significantly? It’s not necessarily the best investment of huge sums of money when other areas are also calling out for more too – not least in the education sector where teachers are currently planning to strike. Auckland University vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon was adamant the policy was a mistake, speaking to Heather du Plessis-Allen on Newstalk ZB. His argument was based on the idea that you do more good with targeted spending and investment in staff, rather than a significant and broadly delivered boost for first year (and then 2nd and 3rd year) students. For a long time, universities have warned the government that the outcomes of the policy will give greater advantages to students from wealthier backgrounds.

Student organisations argue that the fees free policy is fundamentally about access to education. They say that to focus on student numbers misses the point – rather it should be there for people if and when they want to take it up. Then again, a few months ago the NZUSA were calling for a restoration of the postgraduate allowance, which was controversially cut by the previous government. They aren’t pitching it as an either/or, but that would significantly enhance access to the upper echelons of study, but with a comparatively smaller number of people benefitting. And of course, there are always underlying calls for targeted student funding to be applied to areas of skills shortages.

It should be reiterated – nothing has been set in stone, and the policy may yet be rolled out on schedule. But on the face of it, the policy is a slower motion version of where the government is currently at politically with Kiwibuild. There, the policy is looking likely to change as part of a wider shift in the overall housing policy. In that case minister Phil Twyford said Kiwibuild was designed to address a particular problem – lack of first home affordability – but now they had other priorities to address. Like building 100,000 houses, three years free tertiary study is a massive, headline grabbing policy to campaign on. But those sorts of policies often don’t survive coming into contact with the realities and altered priorities of governing.


Vodafone NZ has been sold to Infratil, and the new owners say they want to reinvigorate the company. The NBR (paywalled) reports some interesting comments from Infratil chair Mark Tume, who described the company as part of the “critical infrastructure” of telecommunications, rather than just being a brand to acquire. The deal still needs to be signed off by the Commerce Commission, and the Overseas Investment Office, due to the purchase being made in partnership with Canadian investor Brookfield Asset Management.

As for how the company will be affected by the buyout, the NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Chris Keall’s piece this morning is useful. It’s likely the company will push harder on products based on technology, like fixed-wireless broadband and streaming services. And on Newsroom this morning, Bernard Hickey has looked back at Infratil’s history with turning companies around and putting them on a new pathway, for a guide as to how they might proceed with Vodafone.


Auckland mayoral candidate John Tamihere has called for the business operations of Ports of Auckland to be sold off, reports Interest. He proposes that Council would retain the land it sits on, and the new owners would have to lease the land for 25 years, before exiting gracefully to allow the land to be redeveloped. It would potentially create (even more) delays for the current wishes of NZ First, whose ministers want Auckland’s port operations to be moved to Whangarei.


Free or subsidised dental care is being considered by the minister of health, the NZ Herald (paywalled) reports this morning. It comes out of documents they’ve got under the official information act, which David Clark then declined to comment on. There’s plenty of speculation in the story that Labour might campaign on reducing the cost of dentistry at the next election – Mr Clark has long pointed to it as an issue with significant unmet demand, but says changes won’t come before the election.


If you’re getting train delays in Auckland over the next few weeks, it might be because of this. Stuff reports an industrial dispute between workers and management at train maintenance contractor CAF has erupted, with management locking workers out for 30 days in response to a planned strike. The union says that’s a “declaration of war,” and has accused the company of paying significantly lower wages than competitors, and targeted vulnerable workers. For passengers, that could mean fewer trains will be available for use, so there could be disruptions.


Eltham residents are launching a petition to improve the safety of a major pedestrian crossing, reports the Taranaki Daily News. The Four Square is on State Highway 3 – it was actually part of the first stretch of road to be tar-sealed in New Zealand – but now thousands of vehicles come down it every day. In the space of three days, more than 250 people have signed the petition, out of a town population of a few thousand. NZTA have a plan in the works, but it’s not clear when that will actually be released.


Get a flu jab! It has been spreading widely in Australia already this season, reports Radio NZ, and health professionals are warning it’s starting to crank up here too. It will at most cost you $45, and many workplaces offer it for free, so just to reiterate, get a flu jab. It might save you from losing a week of your life to a horrible illness, or much worse consequences. And on the subject of protecting yourself from illness, Newstalk ZB’s news bulletins were reporting this morning that the spread of measles is continuing, with the vast majority of those new cases affecting unvaccinated people.


From our partners: A two-tier system of energy use is developing, with those on high incomes much more able to reduce their bills than households on lower incomes. Vector’s Chief Risk and Sustainability Officer Kate Beddoe outlines what the company plans to do about that.


The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.

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Right now on The Spinoff: Ben Thomas sends a harsh message to the National party that they are no longer in government, and can’t go on behaving like it. Jai Breitnauer looks at the post-CGT landscape for how the housing market could be made more accessible. Kera Sherwood-O’Regan writes about a breakfast where she and other rangatahi grilled the UN Secretary General on combatting climate change. Josh King writes about how recent World War One commemorations have raised awareness, but not understanding. And if you haven’t already seen them, here’s the list of Ockham book award winners.


I’m very glad I asked for your feedback on NCEA changes, because the ideas raised were really diverse and interesting. What is clear is that the move towards less internal assessment is quite strongly felt by a number of people, and many of you had some expertise to share too. A slight clarification – while the balance of assessment will become 50:50 between internal and external, those external assessments won’t necessarily just be in the form of exams – they might also include portfolios of work that gets sent away.

That matters a lot for the feedback, because many responders were dead against making exams more important. Melissa said she agreed NCEA needs to change, but towards even more flexibility for students. “Internal assessments means actually learning and deep diving into something, putting heart and soul into getting a good grade. Externals are about rote learning and are horrific experiences for those of us that have memory challenges.”

Theo wrote to say that as someone with ADHD, he could only thrive in subjects that didn’t require formal exams. “There are those of us who are doing our best, but an exam does not accurately reflect our abilities. As a follow up to this, Jennifer said alternative education methods like Rudolph Steiner were attractive precisely because they didn’t require heavy examination. “The school has since had to introduce external exams due to tighter NCEA regulations, but I never had to sit one and I’m so thankful. I think some people are well suited to them, but people’s learning styles are as diverse as our interests.”

There was a particularly good paragraph from Josh on the matter of exams generally, which I wanted to share as a whole. “Its been a solid ten-ish years since I left high school, but what was really obvious is that some people just don’t do well in exams. The whole process is very alien and unusual. You spend a whole school year working in a classroom and then the three days that define it are in a cold school hall in silence with people wandering around making sure you don’t cheat.”

Barry offered a bit of a counterpoint to those arguments about exams though – he says they’re essential preparation for what comes next. “Working life, perhaps sadly, is competitive, stressful and not always rewarding. Job interviews are a form of testing and by nature highly competitive and some form of preparedness is required; it starts at school.”

There was a long and detailed piece of feedback from Cathy about the experiences her kids had, but I wanted to include it because it included a powerful counterpoint against how internal assessment currently works. Her son failed to get excellence in an early Physics internal assessment, making a final year grade of excellence impossible. “As this happened in Term 1 of year 13 his enthusiasm for going on to study Physics at University dwindled overnight. His results were excellent but his Physics suffered as a result of this one assessment carrying too much weight in the final reckoning. He decided not to study Physics (an area crying out for teachers and academic experts) at University.”

Peter came at it from the point of view of a former teacher, saying NCEA hadn’t worked at all. “In my department of Mathematics and Science, contrary to NCEA projections, massive paperwork and endless ‘exemplars’ arrived in overload. We ended up by snipping enrichment topics from the courses in order to make time to feed students with highly stylised forms of assessment. The answer we got from the NCEA group leaders when asked about this uniformity was always ‘ the aim is to make all students feel valued.’ NCEA is an example of polarised political thinking imposed on a world respected NZ educational system.”

And Juliet, also a teacher, said drama became “untenable” to teach when NCEA came in. “Drama involves achievements which can appear nebulous, such as self-confidence and the ability to reach an audience.  These have always been hard to assess, so under NCEA a whole new set of assessment standards was introduced, involving a whole swag of “measurable” criteria, including research, design and the analysis of various theatrical genres.  The student who struggled with literacy was immediately rendered unable to meet all the necessary criteria.”

I could go on a lot longer with this feedback, because honestly I found all the points of view fascinating. But to wrap it up, I’ll direct anyone who wants to know more to the full raft of changes here. And there are plenty of others being made which would be worth calling for feedback on their own (and you should always feel free to give feedback on any topic) but alas, we’ve run out of space and have to get to the sports news.


Flanker Sam Cane could be about to make his return to Super Rugby this weekend for the Chiefs, reports Stuff. He’s had a long time out of the game with a severe neck injury, one of many injuries in fact that have raised concerns about his career in the game. If he can stay at full fitness, he’s likely to be a major part of the All Blacks’ World Cup squad – and could even be a contender to be the next national captain. First things first though – the Chiefs will be taking on the Blues in a game both teams realistically have to win to stay in playoff contention.

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Speaking of national rugby captains, the Black Ferns have a new one. Radio NZ reports Les Elder has been given the job, which is quite a stunning rise after only debuting in 2015. Her first assignment will be a series involving Canada, USA and France starting in June, and the squad she’ll have to do it with will include 10 uncapped players. Women’s rugby is currently halfway through the World Cup cycle (the next is in 2021) so the players in action this year are likely to feature strongly in the plans for that.


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