Three free years…

students in lecture roomWhat a can of worms Labour has upended with its policy on tertiary education. It promises to turn the clock back to the conditions most of our current politicians enjoyed when they were students; a free university education.

But how will the thousands of student with huge debts feel about this proposed policy? Bitter, is my guess, and with just cause. On the other hand the parents of young, achieving teenagers will be relieved, possibly to the point of considering changing their vote at the next election.

I always had mixed feelings about free tertiary education for certain categories of students, like those studying, law, dentistry, and merchant banking for instance. It never quite jelled with me that labourers and cleaners subsidised the potentially rich career prospects of their more fortunate peers. But that’s just part of the old superannuation dilemma; universal or means-tested? And giving young, eager but impoverished students the ability to climb the upward mobility ladder cannot be taken lightly.

So, is this policy another Labour middle-class welfare grab, like ‘working for families?’ Yes, but it also offers hope. Hope of a leg-up for the poor. Hope for a second chance for mature workers stuck in boring low-paid jobs; a vision of a future that’s not necessarily dark with years of drudgery to look forward to after all. Despite the hurdles ahead, If this policy becomes legislation, and future politicians leave it in place, it will be a sign that New Zealand is finally honouring its legacy of fair social policy.

It will also be a shrewd election-changer. If that is the case we need to ensure that free university education is not only a gift but also an obligation. In the old days teachers had the obligation of bonded placements for the first few years after graduation, usually in places where the recruitment of teachers was difficult.

It is not difficult to think of post graduation social service placements for social workers, the medical profession, teachers, lawyers and probably many more professions.

Such an add-on would also have the benefit of placating those opposed to the policy and just maybe the unfortunate in-betweeners with huge debts to service.

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Chris Horan

Chris is a former social worker, probation officer and Family Court counsellor, living in Hawea in the South Island.