Why Fees Free Uni Failed to Increase Enrolments

The Labour-led Government claimed that removing tuition fees would enable more people from poor backgrounds to go on to tertiary study.

Today, the Government admitted that enrolments haven't risen since its Fees Free policy came in. This was a completely predictable outcome. From the outset, The Opportunities Party labelled the policy middle-class welfare.

Statistics NZ figures have shown that the policy chiefly benefits the rich. This is because students from richer households are far more likely to attend tertiary education and to take longer, more expensive courses than those from poorer households.

Fees Aren’t the Biggest Barrier

A deeper look into the data reveals that the biggest barrier to people from poor backgrounds attending university is not fees, but rather the ability to gain the prerequisite qualifications. And that problem goes right back to pre-school.

Let’s take a look at the numbers: each year, around 60,000 students leave school. Let’s contrast the outcomes of those that leave school from the top two deciles to those from the bottom two.

In 2016, 13,259 students left a Decile 9 or 10 school in a richer neighbourhood. Of those, 9,197 (more than two thirds) left with University Entrance. On the other side of the tracks, 7,059 students left a Decile 1 or 2 school in a poorer neighbourhood and only 1,227 of them with University Entrance – less than 20%.

Of the 2016 school leavers, 7,211 students from Decile 9 and 10 schools went on to study degree-level courses at university in 2017. That’s slightly less than the number with University Entrance, so maybe some of them are taking a gap year. Regardless, well over half of all students from Decile 9 and 10 schools are going straight on to university. The number for Decile 1 and 2 schools was 1,103 students.

Now, University Entrance isn’t a perfect predictor of who can study afterwards. Some students go on to university without it – although you can bet their choice of courses is limited. However, it seems pretty likely that the vast majority who achieved University Entrance in 2016 went on to university in 2017. This suggests that about 90% of the students from Decile 1 and 2 did so. The number who didn’t is between 100–200.

Using this publicly available data, it is easy to see why Labour’s Fees Free policy was never likely to get lots more people from poor backgrounds to university. Most of them who achieve the grades already go. In other words, fees are far from the biggest barrier. After all, we have a pretty generous student loan scheme.

The Real Problem Starts at Pre-school

The real barrier is having the requisite grades, which Labour’s Fees Free policy does nothing about, because this problem starts right back in pre-school.

On average, children from disadvantaged backgrounds turn up to primary school 2 years behind those from richer backgrounds. Internationally speaking, our school system doesn’t throw many resources at helping them make up that difference. As a result, this 2-year performance gap persists pretty much right through our education system. Small wonder then that far fewer students from Decile 1 and 2 schools get University Entrance.

The way to fix this, according to the best research available on the Ministry of Education’s website, isn’t by making tertiary education free. It is by investing in free, full-time, high-quality early childhood education. That is where the gap between rich and poor can be reduced (not eliminated) and our disadvantaged kids can increase their chances of one day going to university.

Until this major problem in our education system is fixed, let’s not pretend that Fees Free tertiary education is anything other than middle-class welfare.