Free-education pitch needs homework

MATHEW GROCOTT - DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF
Last updated 12:00 05/08/2014
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OPINION: It won applause from the audience but the promise from the Internet-Mana party of free tertiary education raises some major questions.

Speakers from both factions making up this alliance, which is campaigning for next month's election with a combined party list, told a rally in Palmerston North on Sunday their policies included free tertiary education.

Internet Party candidate for Palmerston North, Dr Pani Farvid, told more than 200 people in attendance that access to education needed to be widened as knowledge was power.

"We are doing a massive disservice to our young people who have the desire and the urge to better themselves by learning more, by slapping them with a massive debt as they turn 18, 19, 20."

There is no doubt that student loans are a burden on those who collect them. But research also shows that university education increases a person's earning potential.

A 2009 study by the Ministry of Education found that three years after completing a university degree, students earned on average 29 per cent more than compatriots who had only high-school educations.

What a person studied also impacted their earning potential. Medical graduates earned 2.6 times more than those who studied humanities, for example.

The question is whether the cost, in terms of student debt, is worth the reward of that higher income, and that's a question prospective students need to answer.

The question the Internet Party has to answer is how much its scheme will cost and how it will pay for it.

No details of the policy were available on the Internet Party's website, just a message stating the policy was "coming soon". Nor was any information around cost or funding for the scheme outlined at Sunday's rally.

Linking on social media yesterday to the Manawatu Standard's report on Sunday's meeting, Farvid said it was "doable if we reshuffle govt spending".

The cost of such a policy would be quite substantial and would no doubt require quite the "reshuffle".

Another question is around access to free degrees. Surely any policy like this would require stricter controls on the number of admissions in each degree area to avoid a flood of graduates into areas where there are not enough jobs.

What is also important to remember is that the Government already subsidises a sizeable chunk of the cost of university study, that's why foreign fee-paying students pay so much more than Kiwis.

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There is a reasonable debate to be had about those subsidies and whether they're at the appropriate level. But then that's not as easy, popular or sound-bite friendly as what the Internet Party has proposed.

- Manawatu Standard

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