Saturday, February 24, 2024

Kerre Woodham: Fees free hasn't worked, what next?

If the aim of the former Labour government was to get more students from lower income families into tertiary training, it doesn't work.

There is, according to the Tertiary Education Commission who reported to Parliament this week, no discernible evidence that the fees-free —the first-year fees free scheme introduced by Labour— has improved participation from low socioeconomic groups at all. Nada. None.

So that was the stated aim. We will pay the first year of your course fees, therefore lower socioeconomic families will feel more confident about sending their kids into training and education. Didn't happen. Doesn't work.

Okay, so that's good. A scheme was trialled, it didn't work. It costs the taxpayers $340 million, but at least now we know it's not getting the stated desired outcome we won't go throwing good money after bad. This was all I ever wanted from the last administration. You know, they were trialling new things, and do they work? Well, in this case, we actually have a measurable outcome. No, it doesn't. The stated intention did not provide the desired outcome.

National in its coalition horse trading agreed to replace first year's fees free with final year fees free to reward those students to stick at their studies. And I always thought that made much more sense. And of course it's not fees free at all. Taxpayers who already fund the lion's share of the cost of degrees will be paying the costs of that final year, but a more educated, better trained society is a good thing. So, let's see that as an investment. We're getting something in return for the investment.

But if we are still trying to get students from low-income families into tertiary studies, simply replacing the first year with the final year isn't going to change things. What will work is investing in organisations that are already doing that work, and measuring outcomes, and getting good results. Organisations like First Foundation.

They partner a decile one or two student with potential and promise with a corporate and the corporate helps fund their fees. Each of the scholars gets $4K a year for three years to go towards their university costs which minimises their student loan. Many of the kids who get First Foundation scholarships are the first in their families to attend university, so they are matched with a mentor who can help them overcome challenges and help them achieve their goals. They have a mentor that's been there, done that, and knows what it's like so they can support them through that. And then the corporates they're partnered with will arrange for at least four weeks of paid work experience every year, which means they can grow their skills and know how to do work relationships in a safe work environment. Many of them end up working more than that during the uni holidays and the like because they're good workers.

So, here's an organisation that is achieving exactly what Labour said it wanted to do, and that was to take kids from lower-income families and give them the option of study. Christopher Luxon made a commitment during the election campaign to fund organisations and NGO's that are delivering what government departments cannot. He already said he'd do it with mental health. Imagine what First Foundation could do with $340 million, which is what we spent in a year on the fees free first year scheme? Imagine how many kids would be given the opportunity to see if university, a degree, being the first in their family to graduate from university, imagine what they could do.

On the one hand, I would love to see NGOs that have got a proven track record in delivering get that money instead of it going to the final year of study. I’d also love to know whether you think a university degree is still worth it?

Kerre McIvor, is a journalist, radio presenter, author and columnist. Currently hosts the Kerre Woodham mornings show on Newstalk ZB - where this article was sourced.

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