On Aug. 1, New Zealand Labour Party leader Andrew Little resigned after his party hit a catastrophic low of 24 percent support in an opinion poll ahead of the Sept. 23 election. He handed control over to his deputy, Jacinda Ardern, then age 36.
A sharp, informal communicator described by some as a “rock-star politician” in the vein of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ardern has since won Labour a surge of support, predictably termed “Jacindamania” by the media.
Labour support rose to 44 percent in a Sept. 14 poll, four points ahead of the center-right National Party, which has been in power since 2008 and might have expected that its portrayal of a strong economic record would guarantee further electoral success.
Developments in New Zealand fit within an emerging trend, evident in Britain and the United States, for politicians on the left and center-left to see opposition to tuition as a way to mobilize support among younger voters. In New Zealand, Labour has the chance to be a pioneer among national governments in the developed world by abolishing fees: in Germany, it was individual state governments that made such a change.
“If you’d asked me a month ago whether education was going to be a key, election-deciding platform, I would have said never in a hundred years,” said Chris Whelan, executive director of Universities New Zealand, which represents the nation’s eight institutions of higher education.
Average tuition fees at Kiwi universities are about 6,000 New Zealand dollars ($4,400) a year, under tiered fee caps that vary across subjects. The cost of education is split roughly 60:40 between direct public funding and the tuition repaid by graduates, said Whelan.
Graduates’ repayments on government-backed, income-contingent loans start once salaries reach NZ$19,084 ($14,000) and are deducted at 12 percent above that level.
The terms, more onerous than England’s student loans, are one explanation for concern on the issue, with one academic researcher warning that graduate debt is weighing down some and “potentially increasing inequality.”
Another key issue is New Zealand’s spiral in property prices and thus rents, meaning student living-cost support cannot cover accommodation in cities.
In August, Ardern announced that Labour would bring forward by a year its existing plan to phase in free postsecondary education. Students starting courses in 2018 would receive one year of fee-free study, gradually extended to three years by 2024.
Living-cost assistance would also be boosted by NZ$50 ($37) a week under Labour’s new plan, taking both the means-tested maintenance grant and universal maintenance loan to about NZ$220 ($160) a week.
Anticipating claims of a “cynical” policy seeking support from young voters, Ardern said that it was “unreasonable for us to expect that those who are furthering themselves for all of our benefit should have to live on NZ$170 a week.”
So, what is Universities New Zealand’s stance on Labour’s policy? “Our position is that anything that lifts participation in higher education has got to be good,” said Whelan. Although, given that 38 percent of New Zealanders currently enter university within five years of leaving school, “we are not sure how many more students there are out there who are not going to university for some reason that [Labour’s] policy might actually bring through,” he added.
Richard Shaw, a professor of politics at Massey University, said that the pledge to end fees was part of Labour’s “wider slew of policies aimed at appealing to younger people’s presumed sensitivities.”
“The whole idea was [Labour] brought [the policy] well forward because of these missing 200,000 voters,” said Whelan, noting the figure in circulation for numbers of eligible voters not registered.
But Shaw said that rates of voter registration among young voters “don’t look promising” thus far. So, he added, “we really don’t have the preconditions for a ‘youthquake’ à la the U.K.” (In this year's British general election, young voters backed Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn -- who pledged to abolish tuition fees in England -- in unexpected numbers.)
Taking a different view to Whelan, Shaw said that New Zealand Labour’s tuition fees pledge has “been a sort of second-tier issue” in the campaign “and it certainly hasn't shifted public sentiment the way that the removal of interest on [student] loans did a decade ago.” That move was credited with helping Labour unexpectedly hang on to power in the 2005 election.
But if the polls are reliable, Ardern and New Zealand Labour still have a shot at turning their vision of fee-free university education into reality.