Student fees rising

The years of free university education disappear further and further into the past with each fee rise.

The latest from the University of Otago this week saw most undergraduate and postgraduate fees lift by as much as was allowed, usually 5% or $500. Factor in the reality that students face hefty food, power and rates increases - like everyone else - and it is little wonder student debt mounts alarmingly.

The cost for a student hall of residence is now about $290 a week for 38 weeks and rents in the campus zone have climbed to about $95 to $100 a week for a full year.

An additional blow for many students this year is the sudden dearth of holiday jobs, usually a significant source of savings.

Today's consumer generation, brought up on easy credit and student loans, does not seem to let these obstacles stand in the way. That, despite the several harmful implications of debt, is good in one way because university opportunities should be available for all those with the ability and the desire.

University education which is already dominated by the middle and upper classes must not be solely their domain.

Both a healthy society and an efficient economy require social mobility and the most appropriate talent to be developed in the most appropriate places.

Those from any background should have the chance to become doctors, lawyers or philosophy graduates.

New Zealand has evolved a mixed funding system where the State still pays about 65% of the tuition costs, with fees making up most of the rest.

As long as fees do not become too prohibitive, they have the positive effects of encouraging students to focus on their courses, teachers to be more accountable and universities to be more relevant.

Students are likely to better appreciate something for which they pay, and waste is less likely. Thus, a return to those bygone years would not be wise even if it was possible.

New Zealand universities will always complain they are underfunded, partly because that is the nature of such publicly not-for-profit organisations, and, to be fair, the pressure on them has been relentless.

The Government, nevertheless, like the universities themselves, cannot let quality deteriorate. Otago, in particular, knows the future cannot lie in becoming a factory for cheap, low-quality degrees.

On the other hand, ever vigilant financial disciplines are needed to prevent ever increasing expenditure. It is all too easy for management and staff of any institution to become careless with costs.

Otago University Students Association president Simon Wilson correctly predicted, in an apt and colourful description, the university council process for adopting fees would follow "the steps of a familiar dance".

Staff recommend the maximum, students recommend no increase and the council agrees with the staff.

That, of course, is what happened because the university, in its direct interests and well as those of the students, cannot let the quality of the "product" suffer.

Staff have to be attracted and retained and facilities improved.

Because universities are virtual monopolies for some of their courses - dentistry for example - danger lurks in that these are areas where fees, without government limits, could rise inordinately.

For other subjects, like across most of the arts, sciences and in commerce, the university has to be mindful that fees too steep run the risk of driving students away.

University authorities are not expecting much change, at least for some time, with a new government.

John Key and his band have more than enough to deal with before upsetting current university and tertiary arrangements.

Indications also are that he and the Government will largely be pragmatic and might therefore tolerate partial competition/partial government control (through the Tertiary Education Commission) and a mixed government/student fee system.

One place, though, where the new government will hope to make savings is at the allegedly bloated commission, a latter day and enlarged version of the former University Grants Committee.

When National does get around to its examination of tertiary education, it is likely to keep universities on a diet, preventing the laying down of too much fat in the system.

But it will also have to ensure that universities do not starve and that fees do not become prohibitively expensive.


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