On 1 August, New Zealand Labour Party leader Andrew Little resigned after the opposition hit a catastrophic low of 24 per cent support in an opinion poll ahead of the 23 September election. He handed over to his deputy, Jacinda Ardern, then aged 36.
A sharp, informal communicator described by some as a “rock star politician” in the vein of Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, Ms Ardern has since won Labour a surge of support, predictably termed “Jacindamania” by the media.
One of her key policies is a pledge to abolish tuition fees and increase living cost support for students.
Labour support rose to 44 per cent in a 14 September poll, four points ahead of the centre-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 the UK and US, for politicians on the left and centre-left to see opposition to tuition fees as a way to mobilise 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 universities.
Average tuition fees at New Zealand universities are about NZ$6,000 (£3,245) 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 fees repaid by graduates, said Mr Whelan.
Graduates’ repayments on government-backed, income-contingent loans start once salaries reach NZ$19,084 and are deducted at 12 per cent 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 late August, Ms Ardern announced that Labour would bring forward by a year its existing plan to phase in free tertiary 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 a week under Labour’s new plan, taking both the means-tested maintenance grant and universal maintenance loan to about NZ$220 a week. The new plan would add an extra NZ$2 billion to public spending by 2022.
Anticipating claims of a “cynical” policy seeking support from young voters, Ms 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 Mr Whelan. Although, given that 38 per cent 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, professor in 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 they [Labour] brought [the policy] well forward because of these missing 200,000 voters,” said Mr Whelan, noting the figure in circulation for numbers of eligible voters not registered.
But Professor 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 UK” in its general election this year, when young voters backed Jeremy Corbyn – who pledged to abolish fees in England – in unexpected numbers.
Taking a different view to Mr Whelan, Professor 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, Ms Ardern and New Zealand Labour are still in with a shot of turning their vision of fee-free university education into reality.