Some thoughts on Labour’s tertiary education policy

  • I don’t get it – targeting a policy at people who are currently still at school and too young to vote without any cohesive plan to reduce debt for people with outstanding loans seems like obviously terrible politics. How could that not occur to anyone in the Labour policy development team? Whose vote is going to be mobilised or swayed by this? I can think of two groups of people: old-school socialist ideologues who are residually suspicious of the upstart Greens, and maybe some swing voting parents of today’s 13 year olds. You know what the parents of today’s 13 years old care about more than tertiary education? High school education! The people who care most about tertiary education are the people currently in tertiary education, who don’t benefit at all
  • A billion a year is a huge ongoing cost. I wonder what else you could do in the tertiary education sector for a billion a year? Universal student allowances spring to mind – the fees are annoying, but the living costs are the killer. Three years of borrowing undergrad fees could set you back around 16k, but six years of borrowing living costs could set you back around 50k. There’s also a much bigger equity issue with living costs than with fees, because the parental income threshold for allowance eligibility is fairly low. There’s a big group of people whose parents can’t afford to support them during study, and whose parents don’t live in a university town, and yet aren’t eligible for the living allowance. Also the eligibility is a yes/no thing, there’s no gradual drop off in the allowance amount. Someone who is not eligible for the allowance and whose parents can’t (or won’t) support them would easily end up with more than double the debt for the same degree as their more fortunate peers. 
  • Anyone who does a long degree, and anyone who is not eligible for the allowance and doesn’t have other funding, is still going to graduate with debt. Potentially still huge debt. And fee increases are still going to be an issue.
  • Outstanding student debt is really big! I’ve long been a fan of some sort of debt write-off scheme for people who stay in the country, because loss of skilled workers overseas continues to be a major problem. If you spent half a billion a year on debt write-offs while spending the other half billion on increased student allowance eligibility, you’d win many many many votes. And it would be a more meaningful change to the system.  
  • There are lots of areas where a big student debt makes you a bit screwed, such as buying a house (both saving a deposit and making mortgage repayments). Also in assessing eligibility for child related social support – means-tested initiatives such as working for families and the childcare subsidy are based on income before student loan repayments are deducted. This begs for some policy consideration.  
  • The exclusion for postgrad study and for people who are doing a second undergrad degree really undermines the lifetime retraining rationale. 
  • I worry that if passed, this will take the teeth out of more cohesive reform of the sector. I can picture a future where a doctor graduates with $80,000 of debt and is told not to complain because they got three years free. 
  • At the risk of being too big-picture, it seems to me that you can’t fix just one corner of one plank while the rest of the bridge is in disrepair. There needs to be a plan for the whole bridge. (The plank in this analogy is the tertiary sector, the bridge is the social welfare model. I don’t want to start comparing tertiary education to other deserving things, that’s the point of saying the whole bridge needs a fix… Weird coincidence though – a year of fulltime creche for a kid under three is about the same amount of money as three years fulltime study. Like, what? But yeah.)
  • [added later] The problem Labour identifies is that it needs to be easier to access education because a changing economy needs workers to update and/or completely change skill sets over the course of a lifetime. But three years fees-free is too small fry to get us there. Anyone with prior tertiary study is ineligible and it can only be used once per person, and it doesn’t do anything about living costs. If you’re going to be radical, then actually go the whole way: completely re-think the scheme. Make it genuinely free! (Maybe it could be free for anyone who does two years post-school public service? Maybe it could be free for anyone who stays in the country for as many years post graduation as they were enrolled in study?) Write off all debt progressively over the next 10 or 15 years! Introduce a universal student allowance with no lifetime limit and at a higher payment level! If you’re not going to that, if you’re going to make an incremental change, you should carefully consider the best use of funds – and the more I think about it, the more I reckon this is big splashy front-page news stuff but hasn’t had good poilcy work behind it. 

Further to what I was saying yesterday…

This morning was the first swimming lesson of the new term. The plan was that Mr Daddy would take the little dude to the lesson while I swam some laps. I used to go swimming several times a week when I was pregnant with the little dude, not so much this time because my evenings and weekends have a toddler in them now. 

So I’d done maybe eight laps when I see Mr Daddy and the little dude standing at the end of the lane, and I’m thinking to myself, what are they doing there, it’s nowhere near been half an hour! I get to the end of the lane and Mr Daddy says “yeah so he had a total meltdown when he realised you weren’t watching from the side of the pool and I couldn’t calm him down and he was just screaming and crying so we had to come find you.”

I very awkwardly clambered out of the pool. I should have gone to the ladder but when I’m swimming I forget about the pregnant belly and so started hauling myself out of the deep end, then got stuck, and sort of side-flopped over the edge. The little dude thought this was funny “Oh no Mummy yie down pool! Dedt up Mummy!” And as soon as I was up he reached out for me to hold him.

We tried to redeem the swimming experience by taking him to the splash pool with the fountains, and he had a good time for about five minutes before they closed the pool because of what the staff describe as a “faecal incident”, and what the parents all call a “code brown”. 

Funny story, right?

More thoughts on the past two years and growing up etc

I’ve changed a lot in those two years. In ways I didn’t expect, and ways that I maybe could have expected. I hope that some of the sharp corners are smoothing themselves off, part of growing older, part of being mindful of how I am as a mother. This includes thinking about the areas in which I want to be different from my own mum. In some ways I take after my dad more, so for example I will naturally tend towards not worrying about things as much as she did, hallelujah. But I do get stressed and flustered like she does, not all the time, just when I’m overstretched and tired. 

One big thing is to prioritise taking care of myself more. Looking back on the first year, I wish I’d been more matter of fact about what my own needs were and how to make sure they were met. It can mean asking when you don’t want to, and that is something I find hard. It can mean justifying why your needs should trump someone else’s, which I also find hard. It means accepting your limits sit somewhere below where you want them to be, which again, I find hard. 

When I was pregnant with the little dude, my husband was looking for a new job, and we were talking about the whole working hours problem inherent in big law and how to manage it. He left one big firm for another, after trying for a few in-house roles for which he was still too inexperienced. When he moved to the new firm, I remember saying “Look, no-one is ever going to tell you to work less hard, no-one is ever going to tell you to go home early. You have to set those boundaries. And that’s hard but you have to take responsibility for it or you’re going to crash and burn in five or ten years. It’s just the nature of the beast. And setting those boundaries is the first step in changing the system.” (He is way better at setting those boundaries now). 

What I said to him about corporate law is also true of motherhood. No-one else is going to set those boundaries for you. Sure your partner or your parents or your mother in law might say something like “sit down, I’ll play with the baby, you have a cup of tea” – but that’s small fry. It’s really hard though, because it’s still very true (despite decades of feminists talking about how this is a problem) that the buck ends with the mum when it comes to making sure the kids have all their needs met. The perfect mother is one who has very few needs of her own, and who carefully manages to fit them in around her kids (#metime!). Just like the perfect employee is one who zealously springs into overtime because ohmygollygosh they just love the work so much! Both of those types of people are a fiction. 

Realising that I had to set those boundaries also meant realising that I could set those boundaries, and that I might as well do so firmly and without prevaricating. I notice how much better I am with the little dude when I’m well-rested and have been eating well and getting some time to do things that are not paid work or house work or childcare. Things run more smoothly at home when I’m not spreading myself too thin. At the same time, it’s always going to be bloody difficult to feel like you’re the person at the nexus of competing needs, setting those boundaries is always going to be complicated, a building project that requires constant adjustments. And I’m about to add another baby to the mix! Eeek. 

Approaching two

The little dude turns two in a few weeks. Wow. 

The following month, we’ll welcome another bubba. 

I’ve been going through the photos and making some albums, looking back at the little dude when he was a tiny one, and looking forward to having a new born again. Two years is kinda a long time. We look so young in those photos of the first few months – like newborns ourselves, all blinded by the light. That first year of parenthood, yeah, I’m glad it’s properly in the past now. It was … more transformational than I could have imagined. It was like five years condensed into one. It was recovering from birth, getting breastfeeding established, learning how to care for a newborn, it was teething, solids, crawling, sleeping, it was just getting the hang of something then feeling the world completely change again, it was like doing one of those crazy Japanese gameshow obstacle courses.

The second year was basically fine. It was finding a new normal somewhere in between the life I had before, and the life I had with a piripoho. I leant that word last week. Nursling, baby in arms; also meaning treasure; literally translates as “keeping close to the chest.” A baby held close to the heart. That’s what they are in the first year. They are close to the heart, they are sweaty heads in the crook of an arm while they nurse, they are strapped in a baby carrier, they are asleep in your arms. In the second year and towards the end of the first, they start to move away a bit – the mobility of crawling and walking isn’t just physical, it develops in pace with the desire to explore, to be left alone, to go out into the world. This feels like a loss as well as a reprieve.  

Last night the little dude stayed with my parents, and this morning when we met up at the fruit market he didn’t immediately want a cuddle with me, he wanted to take the nectarine from my hand and climb the ladder to the slide. I wonder whether I’ll enjoy the baby phase more with number two, knowing that it will all be over soon? Hard to tell. I might just be so overwhelmed by the juggle of toddler needs plus baby needs that the year passes in a blur of sleeplessness. 

The little due is well on the way to being an older toddler. He understands a lot. He talks a lot. He’s eager to help me and he always wants to do things by himself, like carry the watering can from the tap to the pot plants. He remembers things from several weeks ago. He is still talking about his cousins we saw when camping, which is a month ago now. 

I don’t think we give small children enough credit for how complicated the world is and how tricky it must be for them to figure it all out. Until the past two hundred years or so, almost everyone saw the same people every day. The little dude is old enough to remember all the people we’ve seen from out of town during the past six weeks, but young enough that he might not still remember them next time. 

That said, the older they get, the more they adjust to how things are done in the culture in which they live. In the first year, I felt so strongly that our post-industrial way of life makes everything much harder than it needs to be for babies and their caregivers. This is still true with a toddler, but less so. And because they are more independent and individuated, there is less pressure and expectation towards caregivers to do things A Specific Way, more acknowledgement that what works for one kid might not work for another kid. The most personal aspects of new motherhood – the pregnancy and birth and choices around breastfeeding – are over, and the hardest bits can be compartmentalised as having happened to a slightly different version of yourself. The past starts to shift into soft focus. Growing up, eh. 


He saw me dunk a gingernut into a cup of tea once and now every time he has a drink he tries to put food into it. Eggs into milk. Toast into water. Rice into water. Porridge into my tea.


So our old place didn’t have a dishwasher and the new house does and I’m still not over how revolutionary and amazing and life enhancing it is to have a dishwasher! All that time spent rinsing and washing and drying dishes is now condensed into a really small amount of time that doesn’t even feel like a chore. We had a housewarming on the weekend and thanks to the dishwasher, the clean-up was a breeze! Every night we look at our clean kitchen and go “wow, dishwashers are awesome, how did we used to cope without one?!”

Then it struck me this is basically the perfect metaphor for how having money makes life easier.