Election pledges address student fees and allowances

New Zealand’s opposition parties are promising more financial support and lower fees for tertiary students in an attempt to woo youth voters – and their parents – ahead of this week’s general elections.

But little is being offered for universities and other tertiary institutions.

The elections see the incumbent centre-right National Party seeking a fourth term in power against a strong challenge from the centre-left Labour Party.

Polls put the two parties neck and neck on roughly 40% of the vote each, and smaller parties including the Greens and New Zealand First, will almost certainly be needed to form a government.

Students have had little help from the National Party-led government, which has restricted access to student allowances and axed them altogether for postgraduate students.

In contrast, the Labour Party is promising to gradually eliminate tertiary institution fees – judged by the OECD to be among the highest in the world after adjustments for purchasing power – and immediately increase allowances and the amount that students can borrow for living costs from the government’s Student Loan Scheme.

The centrist New Zealand First party has pledged to shift from a means-tested student allowance – currently accessed by about 30% of students – to a universal allowance, and the Green Party wants to increase allowances and phase in a universal allowance.

The president of the New Zealand Union of Students' Associations, Jonathan Gee, said the opposition parties’ policies are a response to a growing awareness that many students are not coping financially.

“It represents a turning point,” he said.

“We hear stories all the time of students who are unable to afford the costs of tertiary study.”

Gee said the current government had gradually de-funded student support to the point where only a third of students received an allowance that was means-tested against their parents’ income.

In addition, the allowance, and the amount that students could borrow from the Student Loan Scheme for living costs, had not kept up with price increases.

With a coalition of Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens looking possible, Gee was optimistic that students’ needs would be addressed by the next government.

Nothing more for universities

However, the executive director of Universities New Zealand, Chris Whelan, said the political parties were offering “nothing at all” for the country’s eight universities.

“Fair enough, they’re looking for voters and there’s no votes in increasing institutional funding,” he said.

Whelan said institutions might benefit if higher allowances and lower fees increased enrolments, but he warned that might come at a cost.

“If you grow quantity, unless you grow quality at the same time, are you doing students a disservice?” he said.

Whelan said university funding was not keeping up with cost increases and the sector needed more income per-student.

The president of the Tertiary Education Union, Dr Sandra Grey, said the National-led government had failed students and tertiary staff.

“The National government has underfunded education at all levels which means too many students in every class, a lack of support services, and our students living in poverty and hardship,” Grey said.

She said Labour, the Green Party and New Zealand First offered the best options for tertiary education.