From Denmark and New Zealand, we have some very interesting policy developments to review.
Let’s start down south, where Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party seems to be cruising to a massive electoral victory in next week’s election. Labour, which came second in 2017 but grabbed the brass ring via a coalition agreement with the nationalist/populist New Zealand First party, seems to be within touching distance of a standalone majority, which is almost impossible in a proportional representation system. I guess that’s what deeply competent COVID-era leadership gets you.
Anyways, back in 2017, Labour introduced something called “Free Fees”. The idea was that everyone entering first year of tertiary education would get their first year of fees paid up to a maximum NZ$12,000, a sum which covers fees at nearly every program in the country (anywhere else, you’d call it a voucher system, but it’s a progressive labour government so that’s verboten). The idea was that they’d do this for first-year fees in their first term, then expand it to second year in 2021 if they won re-election, and then to the third and final year of undergraduate studies in 2024 if they won a third term.
The New Zealand government really went to town on this one. Unlike any Canadian government in the history of ever, they set up an actual monitoring framework which allowed analysts to see if the program was working. OK, they cheated a wee bit by omitting attrition as a key indicator, which was odd since attrition was a main justification given by the Labour Party for the measure (Ardern’s line in 2017 was about how free fees meant students wouldn’t need to take so many part-time jobs and could concentrate on their studies). And as it happens, attrition rates rose somewhat for that first cohort, but hey that might have been a fluke. Fluctuations happen. Certainly, there was no sense (publicly at least) that the program was anything other than a roaring political success.
So it was a bit of shock to open up the Labour Party manifesto the other day to find that the commitment was…gone. Poof. Government has thought the better of it. Instead, it has been replaced with a commitment to eliminating fees on apprenticeships.
This. Is. Brilliant. I mean, really, as far as reaching low-income youth is concerned, reducing fees for apprenticeships is several order of magnitude more progressive than reducing university fees (which tend to be the preserve of wealthier students even – or even especially – where tuition is free). And Ardern appears not to be paying a price for it: she got quite a positive reception from at Victoria University last week as she straightforwardly told them her government now had other priorities. May more left-progressive parties absorb this lesson.
Now over to Denmark. Anti-immigrant sentiment has been building for some time there (the Social Democrats won the last election but to a considerable degree that was due to scooping some right-wing policies as far as immigrants are concerned). This is not simply an issue about non-European migrants: to a considerable degree it is an issue about migration within the European Union.
This is a bit complicated and counter-intuitive for Canadians, but bear with me. In Canada, when people travel across inter-provincial borders, the principle is that the sending province retains responsibility for social provision. So for instance, if someone in Quebec accesses medical services in Ontario, it is Quebec that pays, not Ontario. Similarly, in higher education, if you want to access student assistance, you do so in the province in which you last spent 12 months without being in post-secondary. You can’t move to a more generous province and expect to receive all the same benefits – generally your benefits are based on your prior residence.
In the European Union, it’s the opposite. Each country is expected to treat all European citizens as they would their own. If you happen to give out very generous student benefits – something which is true of most Scandinavian countries – then you risk having to pay a lot of money to non-nationals because of European law. Doubly so if – like Denmark – you offer a lot of programs in English, which are attractive because Brexit or no Brexit, it’s still the continent’s lingua franca. Denmark discovered this challenge several years ago.
Danish student aid expenditures for non-nationals have more than doubled since 2013, and the government is under pressure to bring these costs under control. But it can’t: European law won’t allow differential treatment for European students. But what Denmark can do is make its courses less attractive to other Europeans: mainly, by reducing the number of courses taught in English.
Offhand, I can’t think of a much more foolish course of action for a country to take than to make its system of education less welcoming to foreigners. But if your primary policy goal is to make sure that domestic students pay no tuition and have what is essentially the world’s most generous system of student assistance, then sometimes you are going to have to make some objectively self-harming decisions. Like this one.