31 Jan 2016

Labour's announcement welcomed and slammed

7:23 pm on 31 January 2016

Labour's pledge to offer three years of free post-school education has been described as "levelling the playing field", but also as a "poorly targeted bribe".

Andrew Little delivers his State of the Nation in Auckland.

Andrew Little delivers his State of the Nation in Auckland. Photo: RNZ / Chris Bramwell

In his State of the Nation address in Auckland this afternoon, Labour leader Andrew Little said the policy would apply to any training, apprenticeship or higher education approved by the Qualifications Authority.

Tertiary Education Union president Sandra Grey said the policy levelled the playing field by giving people an equal opportunity to learn.

"It has been a long time since anyone has talked about investing money in tertiary education for the good of students, and for the good of people, rather than for the benefit of business," Ms Grey said.

"This policy will help people get jobs but it will also help them give back to their communities and inspire their families.

"That's a big step in the right direction."

Mr Little said the plan would mean that no matter what path someone wanted to take after they left school, they would be able to get the skills they needed without taking on major debt. It would apply to both full and part-time study.

"This will be available throughout a person's lifetime, so that it can be used for retraining or if someone changes career part way through their working life.

New Zealand Union of Students' Associations president Linsey Higgins was excited about Labour's announcement.

"It's really great to see a political party committing to the idea of free tertiary institution and it's really good that Labour is acknowledging the importance of life-long learning and retraining and upskilling for today."

Mr Little said the policy would cost $265 million per year when first implemented in 2019, and was funded from money already budgeted for, which the current government had earmarked for tax cuts. It would cost $1.25 billion once fully implemented by 2025.

300714. Photo Diego Opatowski / RNZ. Steven Joyce  during a press conference regarding Novopay next steps.

Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

However, Taxpayers' Union executive director Jordan Williams said he had real doubts about the total cost.

"It appears that Mr Little's figures haven't factored in the inevitable growth of education providers this policy would cause.

"The moment something becomes free, the actual worth of the courses becomes less of a factor. Providers will bend over backward to get new people through the doors," Mr Williams said in a statement.

"Our first impression is that this is a poorly targeted bribe - the public should at least have access to credible figures on how much it will cost."

Minister for Tertiary Education Steven Joyce said on Twitter that Labour's policy would achieve nothing and was a desperate move.

Labour stole the policy from the Internet Party at the last election, he said.

ACT leader David Seymour was also critical, saying the policy was "funding for votes".

Labour's Working Futures Plan - By the Numbers

Labour's Working Futures Plan - By the Numbers Photo: LABOUR PARTY

"Right now the deal is: you back yourself, borrow a quarter of your course cost and the taxpayer picks up the remaining three quarters. Labour are now saying the taxpayer pays the lot."

Reaction to the news was immediate - with comments flooding in on social media. Some said it would sway their vote, while others said it sounded "too good to be true".

Plan would to be rolled out over six years

"It will mean our businesses will always be able to find the skilled workers they need to succeed."

The policy applies only to undergraduate education, but there is no age limit.

Labour's plan would be introduced in phases, with one year's education available from 2019, two years from 2022 and three years available from 2025.

The policy would not apply to anyone who had already undertaken any post-school education.

Mr Little's speech was the fourth and final of the scene-setting speeches by political party leaders this week.