Free degrees pledge has interest piqued

Palmerston North's student leaders have given a thumbs-up to the promise of fees-free tertiary education, despite some doubts.

The Internet-Mana roadshow called in on the city during the weekend, pushing the party's policy for the axing of student fees.

The city's student union leaders like the idea, saying it offers more opportunity, but were sceptical on who would foot the bill and about creating a flood of graduates - concerns echoed by Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce.

Internet Party founder Kim Dotcom, supported by the party's Palmerston North candidate Dr Pani Farvid, has said young people are "starting their lives on the back foot" due to debt.

Students were being forced to look for jobs abroad in order to pay back student loans. Free tertiary tuition would alleviate worry and encourage smart, hard-working students to stay in the country and have an in input in New Zealand's economy, Dotcom said.

Association of Students at UCOL (AS@U) president Miranda Orpin said international examples showed it could work, with countries such as Norway successfully integrating similar free-fees systems.

"Coming out of tertiary education without most of a mortgage in debt will forever be an advantage, but what I would like to know, however, is how this scheme will be funded. Once we have a clearer idea of that, then more informed pros and cons can be determined."

Massey University Students' Association (MUSA) president Linsey Higgins said a free education would level the playing field.

"It would remove barriers for people who are disadvantaged or who would otherwise avoid tertiary education because of the cost," she said.

"Free tertiary education would encourage diversity, and give everybody the same opportunities to reach their dreams."

Higgins said more tertiary-educated people could lead to an issue with "degree inflation", but in the long run would encourage students to be entrepreneurs and forge their own way rather than compete for entry-level jobs.

Concerns the cost of free tertiary education was "too much for the country to take on" was down to desire, she said. "It's a matter of priorities and where the Government chooses to invest their money."

A bonding scheme where graduates would have their student debt wiped after working in New Zealand - for say 10 years - would be worth considering.

"This encourages graduates to stay, and build their own life in New Zealand - [it] justifies the investment made by the Government and in turn these graduates are contributing fiscally by being taxpayers through their life rather than leaving the country forever upon graduation, not paying their student loan and not contributing."

The Government spent about $5 billion a year on tertiary education, and subsidised about 70 per cent of tuition costs, Joyce said.

If student fees were scrapped, it "would be impossible for taxpayers to meet that burden on top of everything else they do".

"We think it's fair that people make a contribution to their tertiary study . . . the balance is about right."

Manawatu Standard