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Has New Zealand’s free university plan ‘completely failed’?

The first seven months of taxpayer-funded university for first-year students in New Zealand has been branded a “complete failure”.

Paula Bennett, New Zealand’s National Party Deputy Leader, made this remark in response to newly released government figures, which, according to her, “… show there are 2,400 fewer students in tertiary education and training than a year ago”.

“This policy is costing taxpayers $2.8 billion and we’re going backwards,” she said.

Minister of Education Chris Hipkins, on the other hand, focused on the number of free-free students: 41,700 of them benefited from the policy between January and September this year. Between May and September alone, numbers grew by 25 per cent – mostly in the Institutes of Technology and Polytechnic (ITP) and Industry Training Organisation sectors.

“Given the difficult last couple of years that many of our polytechnics and institutes of technology have experienced, the stabilising of enrolment numbers in that sector is particularly encouraging. This has more than offset the large declines at several institutions, with an overall increase of 678 students on August 2017 figures,” he said.

Further, despite a funding freeze being implemented in June, Hipkins says the policy has led to 31,600 fewer students borrowing money to pay for tertiary study. For this (and the fact that students borrowed $193 million less than they did this time last year to pay for study) he lauded it as a success. He also claimed it was achieving its aim of increasing access to university, notwithstanding the fact that New Zealand, in addition to the policy, has an interest-free student loan system similar to that of Australia.

The policy, which offers one year of free university study or two years of free industry training, is set to expand to two fee-free university years by 2021, and three years by 2024.

The next data set on the policy will be released early next year.

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