Party Like It’s 1989: Bait and Switch is a Bad Look, Mr Hipkins

At the 2017 election, the New Zealand Labour Party promised a Fees Free Policy for tertiary students. Basically, it would make the first year of university education free in 2018, with a second year in 2021, and a third in 2024. It also promised to restore Post-Graduate access to the Student Allowance, which had been axed by the National Government in 2013.

Labour won the election.

As hard as it is to remember the era before the Coronavirus, this was actually a flagship policy for Labour in 2017. In 2018, Fees Free was applied to first years… but there was no movement on the Post-Graduate Student Allowance. Ditto 2019.

In 2020, a month out from the general election? Education Minister Chris Hipkins has just announced that Labour won’t be going ahead with the second and third year phase of Fees Free. Nor will it revive the Post-Graduate Student Allowance:

I believe the technical term is Bait and Switch.

Now, let me be upfront here: Fees Free was a highly expensive policy. And circumstances have indeed changed, what with the Coronavirus. But a promise is still a promise, and people vote based off policy expectations. After the shenanigans of the 1975-1993 era, it took a long, long time for New Zealanders’ trust in election promises to be restored. Governments since 1999 have at least tried to carry out promises, even if (from time to time) they also do things they didn’t actually promise at all. Hipkins’ announcement takes us right back to the Bad Old Days of Governments lying through their teeth, and in an international climate of craziness, that’s not something you want to encourage.

Fees Free is one thing. As I mentioned, it’s a highly expensive policy, even if this new development leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It’s the (much smaller) Post-Graduate Student Allowance issue that makes me See Red.

You see, restoring the Post-Graduate Student Allowance is not a highly expensive policy. Many post-graduates live off scholarships, and many are ineligible anyway because they are studying part-time or are international students. But for those who do not live off scholarships, and who are borrowing to live while they complete their full-time studies… the loss of the Student Allowance is actually important. It was a nasty policy when enacted by National seven years ago, and Labour committed itself to fixing things. When you commit to something, you damned well try… and unlike Fees Free, there hasn’t even been a half-arsed attempt to try to restore the Post-Graduate Allowance. This is a straight-out broken promise.

For those with an appreciation of history, we’ve been here before, of course. In 1989, Labour Education Minister, Phil Goff (now Mayor of Auckland) instituted tertiary education fees without prior electoral warning. As generations of students have pointed out, that was also a bit rich coming from someone who never had to pay a cent for their education. In the run-up to the 1990 election, National ran on a platform of abolishing Labour’s hated fees. Lockwood Smith (who would become Education Minister after the election) promised he’d resign if he didn’t scrap the fees.

Smith tripled the fees, and didn’t resign.

That’s the sort of legacy that New Zealand politicians have spent over two decades running away from. Now Chris Hipkins has taken us back to that. Goodness only knows how long it will take to rebuild trust a second time. Screw you, Hipkins.


As a side-note, my interest in commenting isn’t simply that New Zealand tertiary education is a matter close to my heart, though it is. It’s also because I want to put out a counter-view to the general narrative. The New Zealand media is full of Auckland and Wellington baby-boomers, all of whom own their own homes, and none of whom had to pay for their university education. I’ve already seen a few of the mainstream media outlets cooing over Hipkins showing “common sense”. After all, university education is middle-class welfare, right? Well, no. University education is a vital part of social mobility, and if it does lead to subsidising the well-off, that’s what progressive taxation is for. If rich people go to university… you tax the rich people to fund it. It’s hardly rocket science. So screw the New Zealand media too.

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