After digesting this year’s budget, we sat down with Minister of Education Chris Hipkins for a chat about future education policy, student welfare, and vast conspiracies to alter unemployment statistics through three years of “fees-free” tertiary education.
Nexus: Is the Government planning any moves to help students?
CH: I think this year’s budget had a major focus on students. It was the budget in which we set aside the money to pay for the first year fees-free, so the criticism—in fact—that we’re having from the universities and polytechs is that it was too focussed on students and not focused enough on them. Subsequent to the budget, we have announce—in addition to the first year free—an across-the-board funding rate increase for universities and polytechnics, so that will kick in next year. We’ve also extended the borrowing limits for medical students so that they can complete their studies without coming up against a student loan cap. There will be more in the pipeline as finances allow.
Also this year, we had the $50 dollar increase in student allowances and student loan borrowing rates to recognise the cost of living pressure that students face.
Nexus: Do you personally have any pet plans for students?
CH: One of the big priorities is implementing the three years free policy, and that’s gonna be rolled out over time. We’ve got a number of other commitments in the tertiary education area. We know that funding is tight and we know that tertiary institutions face tight funding situations.
Nexus: Is fees-free just a ploy to bring down unemployment numbers?
CH: No, not at all! Fees-free basically means people can complete their studies with a lot less debt. So we’ve seen $150 million less borrowed under the student loan scheme, around $25,000 fewer people borrowing for their fees—that’s a really successful outcome. We want people to be able to get rid of their student loan a lot faster after they finish their study, so fees-free is where we started.
Nexus: What are your plans to ensure student media and welfare through levies if there will not be a repealing of the Freedom of Association?
CH: [We] haven’t made any decisions. [It is] something we will think about as we contemplate a rewrite of the Education Act. I opposed the introduction of voluntary membership—I think that student associations have a very important role to play in the vibrancy of universities; in the welfare of students. I’m a former student association president myself, so I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t continue to hold those views. We’re gonna look at how we can ensure that student voice, in particular, is restored because its certainly struggling in light of voluntary membership.
Nexus: Do you personally want to see Freedom of Association repealed?
CH: I’m not going to preempt that. We have to go through a process of going through all the options and deciding which one, as a Government, we’re going to pursue—and we’ll consult with NZUSA and other student associations as we do that.
Nexus: How will changes to secondary education impact the teachers of tomorrow?
CH: We want to get a greater focus on the coherence of what people study in their secondary school. If you look at NCEA, you see a lot of young people just accumulating credits without having much regard for where those credits will lead them... through the review of NCEA, we can ensure that everyone is on a meaningful pathway to the future, and I hope it will increase the number of people who will be training to be teachers as we have a real shortage.
Nexus: Is there a place for the NZUSA in a world without compulsory student unionship?
CH: I think there’s a really important place for NZUSA. Students need a voice at the local institutional level, and at the national level. NZUSA plays a significant role in that.
Nexus: Will you fix postgrad student allowances?
CH: It’s something that we will look at as funding allows. We’ve made it very clear that we want to remove financial barriers to participation in all forms of education. It was one of our five highest priorities for education going into the election campaign. We haven’t made any decisions on that yet and what we will do depends on how much funding we have left.
Nexus: What else is on the cards for student welfare beyond specific education policies?
CH: We recently passed the Healthy Homes Guarantee [Act 2017], which will have a significant impact on student accommodation because we do know that student accommodation is some of the worst private landlord-provided [housing] in the country. I think the Healthy Homes Guarantee will make a big difference in terms of raising the standards of student accommodation; making sure they’re warm and dry.