Students cheer $6bn plan to phase in free study starting from 2018 and increase living allowances as opposition also plans $25 tourist tax
Jacinda Ardern has made a bid to secure the youth vote in New Zealands upcoming elections by announcing that she will fast-track a Labour party policy to phase in three years of free tertiary education and boost student allowances by $50 a week.
Announcing the policy in her Mount Albert electorate in Auckland, Ardern said that from next year students starting tertiary education would get one year of free study under a Labour government. From 2021 those starting tertiary education would get two years free, and from 2024 three years. The overall cost of the package is $6bn.
To applause from students in the audience at Western Springs College, Ardern said: Our job isnt to gaze into a crystal ball to predict the type of work you will do, which is going to be amazing. Our job is simply to help you prepare for it.
When you are trained and educated, that benefits all of us, and the New Zealand economy as a whole.
Labour plans to use extra money from the treasurys pre-election fiscal update to fast-track the tertiary education package to begin next year.
Ardern said student allowances would rise by $50 per week to $220 from next year.
Students have told us that the priority needs to be living costs. Just getting by week to week has become a significant barrier to many people continuing to study, Ardern said.
For anyone out there who challenges that, who says that this is a cynical move or a policy that we shouldnt be announcing, my response to them is this: it is unreasonable for us to expect that those who are furthering themselves for all of our benefit should have to live on $170 a week.
University of Canterbury student Jack Nolan, 21, supported the policy, even though it would not alleviate the debt he had amassed by his fourth year of a bachelor of law and criminal justice. Its bad timing for me, but the important thing is other people can benefit from it there has to be focus on the future.
George Costello, 22, studying history and classics at the University of Canterbury, said it was gutting that the policy would not help him with the $30,000-plus debt he would be shouldering and he did not see an end in sight to paying it off.
New Zealanders owe approximately $16bn of student debt. Political science researcher Dr Sylvia Nissen, who completed a PhD on student debt, said the level was unprecedented and rising.
When we probe deeper we realise all is not well with students who have debt. Debt is potentially increasing inequality in a generation.
Ardern, who worked in a fish and chip shop and a supermarket to save for her university fees, has taken the country by storm, reinvigorating the opposition an effect that has been dubbed Jacindamania.
Since she took over the leadership Labour has surged from a disastrous low of 24% in July to 37% in the latest One News Colemar Brunton poll. Labour hopes Ardern can claw back disillusioned voters at the 23 September election and put the party in a position to form government.
The 37-year-old has pledged to combat widening poverty and inequality, a desire that she says stems from her childhood in rural New Zealand noticing some children without shoes on their feet or anything to eat for lunch. At her campaign launch on 20 August, Ardern vowed to pull children out of poverty.
New Zealands opposition Labour Party has also said it will slap a tax on tourists to help fund new infrastructure amid a tourism boom if it is voted into office next month.
Labour said on Monday it plans to charge every visitor a $25 (13) fee which would be ring-fenced for a NZ$75m fund to pay for infrastructure.
The party would speak with customs and immigration officials to find the most efficient way to collect the levy, Labour tourism spokesman Kris Faafoi said.
A record surge in tourism in the last three years has fuelled New Zealands impressive economic growth but left the Pacific nations infrastructure straining, with locals complaining of everything from clogged small town public toilets to once-tranquil nature walks crowded with people and rubbish.
The small nation with a population of around 4.5m saw visitor numbers leap 30% since 2014 to 3.6 million in the year to June, according to data from Statistics New Zealand.
Reuters contributed to this report