Three free years

With apologies to the Greens – that’s no policy costings unit, it’s a space station.

The four State of the Nation addresses held last week make an interesting analogy for their respective parties’ goals in 2016.

The Greens are going to demand respect as mature political actors and build themselves as credible, thoughtful and full of integrity.

John Key, whose SOTN kind of vanished without a trace last Wednesday, is carrying on the business-as-usual nothing-to-see-here approach.

Winston Peters held his SOTN in Orewa and I haven’t heard anything about it, probably because my ears don’t pick up the frequency of his dogwhistle.

Labour is … doing things differently.

Three years’ free post-school education for school leavers and people who haven’t accessed tertiary education is a pretty tremendous announcement. It wedges the door open for the next generation of students who won’t be saddled with as-horrific levels of debt before they even get to start their “real” careers.

And yeah, I say that as someone who still has years of loan-and-living-costs repayments ahead of me.

snape not mad

Education is too valuable to reduce to an individual’s job chances. It’s about far more than training people to be accountants and lawyers, even if the Minister responsible for it thinks so.

Education is a public good. We all benefit from lifting up each other’s knowledge and skills and abilities to think and adapt to different situations.

And from the reaction I’ve seen, most people get that. They understand that the 25-year social experiment with “user-pays” education is a total failure. They get that there is an alternative.

But let’s look at it in terms of the direction Labour is signalling for 2016 and heading into Election 2017. Make no mistake: free tertiary education is a leftward step. And it’s about time.

Even in the latter days of the Clark government, Young Labour types would argue that making it easier for students to go into personal, up-front debt to pay for their degree counted as “making tertiary education affordable”. That was the safe approach, which technically opened up opportunities for young people in education but accepted the fundamentally rightwing idea that education was an individual pursuit and that individuals should bear the financial burden, personally and up-front.

This policy is free tertiary education. There are conditions: it’s time-bound – for now. It doesn’t apply to people like me who have already got degrees – for now. It’s dependent on passing half your papers each year.

Still: it is free. Tertiary. Education. And that’s a lot more than I would have predicted, to be honest.

I have nits to pick – I’m a leftwing political blogger, after all – but this is a solid first move after a year of stocktaking and self-reflection by the party. It’s a pity that it will be overshadowed a little by the continued TPPA shenanigans, but if Labour builds on this across its portfolios – social development, healthcare, justice – it has the beginnings of a bold, compelling set of ideas to take into the 2017 election.

Labour in 2016 is not afraid to look to the left, change the conversation, and dare National to follow their lead.

It’s exactly what they’ve needed. Long may it continue.

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