This year, for the first time since 1990, tertiary students will not pay fees for their first year of study.

The fees-free policy means New Zealanders who finished school in 2017, or are to finish school during 2018, qualify for a year of fees-free provider-based tertiary education or two years of industry training in 2018.

This year’s changes were the first step in the Government’s plan to provide a full programme of three years’ fees-free tertiary education and training for New Zealanders by 2024.

Marcia Spanswick from Tauranga has just begun her Bachelor of Laws at Waikato University’s Tauranga campus.

The new policy means not having to pay just under $8,000 in fees for her first year. She says this is going a long way towards reducing the financial pressure on her.

“It’s less I have to borrow now and means I’ll owe that much less by the end of my study.

“A few friends of mine, who’ve just finished Year 13, have delayed starting tertiary study because they, and their families, can’t afford it. They’ve decided to work for a year or two to save for university instead.”

This policy also benefits those who are not school leavers. Adults who have previously studied for less than half a full time year of tertiary education or industry training also qualify for fees free.

Some in the tertiary sector have praised the move – such as New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA) president Jonathan Gee.

He said fees free will ease pressure on those students who have had to work part-time jobs on top of their full time study.

“Previously, they’ve been focused much more on economic survival rather than academic success,” he said.

“As an association we are happy other fees outside of tuition fees are also covered by the policy. We are glad that these more hidden and unexpected costs like the CSSF (Compulsory Student Services Fee) are also covered.”

He also said that those completing industry training who will be eligible for two years fees free, will help “level the playing field between trades training and university”.

One Bay of Plenty mother of two, who doesn’t wish to be named, is thrilled with the fees-free policy. Her son is in his second year of study in Auckland and her daughter has just begun a Bachelor of Science majoring in environmental science at the University of Auckland.

“The free fees means we save $7,600. It can be expensive putting kids through university. Every week I send a portion of my wages to help my daughter pay for the halls of residence. Her rent is $372 each week. I also send some money to help my son pay for food. He took a gap year after school and was able to save up a lot for his first year.”

She works two jobs in addition to owning a business with her husband and says they are “lucky” to be able to help their children out.

“There will be other families who can’t.”

The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) was responsible for the initial roll-out of fees free and chief executive Tim Fowler says it went well.

“We are pleased with how the implementation has gone, particularly given the tight timeframe. A number of tertiary education organisations (TEOs) have commented to us how smoothly it went, and that compliance has not been burdensome.”

Others in the tertiary sector have been more tepid in their response.

Universities New Zealand chief executive Chris Whelan says the policy doesn’t target those who find it hardest to access study such as Māori and Pasifika students. He says on average students leave university with a relatively small debt of on average $27,000 to $28,000, which takes students around three years to pay back.

Is he worried that when universities lose fees from students, income to the university per student will fall overall?

“In theory, no. The Government (also known as the taxpayer) is covering the full difference in the short term. We are, however, worried as to whether the Government will increase this funding in the middle to longer term. If they don’t, then we will face challenges maintaining quality if funding per student declines.”

Universities had also warned of an increase in administrative costs and that fees free could push students to choose a subject they wouldn’t have previously just because they could get more funding.

Chief executive of Industry Training Federation (ITF) Josh Williams welcomes the fees-free policy but wishes more was being done to support its members.

“We’re pleased by the entitlements that apply to trainees and apprentices, particularly that the fee support would cover both employer and trainee fees for the first two years of a traineeship or apprenticeship. But as more than half of new trainees are already tertiary qualified, the Government has estimated that only 6,000 of the 80,000 fees-free eligible students were industry-based learners.

He said the ITF is disappointed by restrictions that suggest few trainees and apprentices will still be eligible for support by the time they become a trainee or apprentice.

“The Government saves enormously every time it invests in an industry trainee. Fees are lower, subsidies are much lower, the skills are matched to industry needs, and the students are economically active, paying tax rather than drawing on student support.”

Potential students can find out whether they are eligible on the fees-free website.

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