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Education pledge a bold bid to shift political landscape

Opinion Piece

Labour leader Andrew Little produced something of a bombshell, overshadowing rivals in the round of state of the nation addresses, when he announced at the weekend that a Labour government would bring in free post-school education. The question immediately arises, can the country afford it?

The policy would be phased in, starting in 2019 when it would apply to only undergraduates, rising to two years in 2022 and three years from 2025. Labour estimates costs of the policy would rise progressively from $265 million at first to $1.2 billion a year when fully implemented.

Answering the obvious question, Mr Little said the cash would come from the funds National had already earmarked for tax cuts.

The Taxpayers’ Union questions Labour’s costings, saying they seem to ignore “the inevitable growth of education providers this policy would cause”.

Universities NZ executive director Chris Whelan says he is hesitant to give the scheme full support because it does not deal with under-funding of the country’s universities — which have seen per student funding decline by 17 percent over the past two decades.

Latest available stats show 38 percent of New Zealanders have a university education, with about 180,000 studying each year.

None of that will deter Little, who is committing the party to providing free education for the 21st century. The announcement also took some of the attention away from Labour’s decision at its Wairarapa retreat not to support the TPPA trade deal, being signed in Auckland on Thursday.

Prominent MPs and former leaders Phil Goff and David Shearer have come out against that decision. Shearer, who was not present for the state of the nation speech, was ordered to apologise. Former Labour prime minister Helen Clark is also in favour of the TPPA.

Coming almost two years before the next election, this education pledge shows Labour is prepared to be bold in its quest to gain power. It will be interesting to see how debate on the policy unfolds, and how the public responds.