Friday, 30 September 2011

Resurrecting Student Activism

The Words Of The Prophets: Arrogant, ideologically-driven and potentially self-defeating, the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Act will almost certainly put an end to most of New Zealand's students associations. But why? Over the past decade these institutions have become politically inert and absolutely no threat to the staus-quo. Voluntary student membership, conceived by the Right as a cure for the student activism of the 1990s may, paradoxically, end up resurrecting the very radicalism it set out to destroy.

FOR THE New Zealand student movement to be resurrected, it first had to be killed. And that’s exactly what the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Act 2011 did. Voluntary student membership killed the student unions stone dead. Within a couple of years they’d been wound up. Student leaders graduated, student assets were sold. It was over.

But the needs, which student unions had been set up to meet, survived. And, since the student unions were no longer there to meet them, the universities were forced to do the job. And, naturally, it was all user-pays. Services which had once been paid for and provided out of student union dues, were now supplied directly (and much more expensively) by the universities themselves.

To make sure that these services were being provided as effectively and efficiently as possible, the universities needed feedback from the student body. Academic staff were, accordingly, instructed to identify one student representative from each of their classes. Some were perfectly happy to shoulder-tap these class reps, but most agreed that true representation could only be guaranteed by election.

The universities soon had hundreds of class reps to call on for feedback and advice. To make consultation easier they decided to group them by faculty – Arts, Commerce, Science, Medicine, Law.

Inevitably, these faculty groups acquired Facebook pages, blogs and websites, and before long a lively dialogue developed. Discussion ranged over every aspect of student life, and pretty soon the class reps were making all kinds of demands on the university authorities. Unable or unwilling to meet the demands of the faculty groups, the universities decided to acquire student feedback by other means. The class reps were informed that their services were no longer required.

Bad move.

The genie of student democracy was not so easily squeezed back into its bottle. Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere erupted with messages and postings of protest. Flyers began appearing all over the nation’s campuses calling upon the sacked class reps to come together in a nationwide series of mass meetings. An excited student of French revolutionary history called them the “student constituent assemblies”. The name stuck.

Realising that the seven SCAs were too unwieldy to act with any real decisiveness, it was decided that the faculty groups should elect delegates to Student Representative Councils. The deliberations of the SRCs were beamed out, live, to every New Zealand student with a lap-top.

When one panicky university foolishly decided to deny its SRC the use of the meeting space it had commandeered, its delegates barred the doors and called upon the student body to defend them. Thousands of students responded. The Police were called. Students were batoned, tasered and arrested. But, the defensive ring held. The SRC presidents, meeting by video conference, called for a nationwide student strike.

University students throughout New Zealand responded in their tens of thousands. When the universities shut their gates, the students poured onto the streets. Their banners proclaimed: “Democracy or Revolution? Your Move.”

An alarmed government called the university vice-chancellors and the SRC presidents to a meeting in the Beehive. The student leaders demanded that the negotiations be broadcast live. Maori Television immediately offered its services. Reluctantly, the government agreed.

Its decision was soon regretted. The student demands placed before the government were escalating well beyond the right to represent themselves when dealing with the university. The repressive conduct of the authorities had raised the consciousness of students to the point where the legitimacy of New Zealand’s entire tertiary education system was under open challenge.

The call, now, was for the restoration of free university tuition, the payment of a living student allowance, and for the governing bodies of universities to be made up of one third students, one third academic staff, and one third representatives from the community.

As a good-will gesture, the Prime Minister offered to restore the former system of student representation.

“No thanks, Prime Minister”, laughed the SRC presidents, “ this new one’s much better.”

This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Timaru Herald, The Taranaki Daily News, The Otago Daily Times, The Greymouth Star and The Waikato Times of Friday, 30 September 2011.

23 comments:

bsprout said...

I hope you're right Chris, the last 24 hours have been hugely frustrating for me due the damage caused by shonky governance.
http://localbodies-bsprout.blogspot.com/2011/09/students-and-soldiers-suffer-through.html

Winston Potters said...

Dream on. Auckland University hasn't become a hot bed of revolutionary activity. Rather, students study. And drink. And have fun.

These days, politics is for sad, old people.

Chris Trotter said...

Yes, Mr Potters, the students of the 1950s were somewhat similar.

Imagine their surprise when the generations of students that followed them in the 1960s and 70s turned on the sad old people they'd become and transformed New Zealand society.

Sam Hill said...

Yes, Chris. I have been advocating a very similar point of view to some "Student Representatives" in the the past few days. The "democracy" we have right now is supposedly represented by the NZUSA, which is a Union of Student Associations, rather than a Union of Students. Free Association now gives students a chance to actually create a FREE association, without any financial costs. It doesn't cost me anything to vote in a General Election, it doesn't cost me anything to be politically active. Why should we pay to have a voice?

I didn't really care to see the VSM pass, like you I see the opportunities rather than the despair. I feel as though most student activists on campus lack the fortitude to fight for what students are really after anyway - a better, more valuable education and and training which will actually insure that students can find jobs at the end of their studies.

If anything, the VSM gives people like me more power. It will radicalize the student voice, because now there is no "official" Union. This may end up being the best thing ACT has ever done for young people, but not at all for the reasons they intended.

Victorina said...

Very good future history, Chris...

Madison said...

Chris, I've been pondering an idea that links a few of your last posts. The Student Union leaders of today, much as in your day, are mainly out of touch with the regular student body. They are not having to seriously campaign for the funds they need, make wide sweeping statements purporting to represent everyone while only having the blessing of a very small minority and they feel that anyone who challenges them should feel their wrath.

This is also the breeding groung for the leaders of the Labour Party. This seems to be pushing along the list of problems that are facing many of the Labour MPs and strategists. They are unable to connect with the electorate, react viciously to criticism or someone removing their support and seem to often reside in tier own rarefied air that common workers never inhabit. With the average worker being the person labour is supposed to connect with this would be a fatal flaw.

It seems to me that the passing of VSM will lead not to the death of the student unions but to the influx of a far more savvy and streetwise core for Labour. Having to work much harder while in University to earn support, create structure and make things work with limited resources as well as getting donations.

Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D28KHIBl1lg

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what to make of this piece. My own opinion is that the universities themselves have changed in such a way to make the resurrection of student politics in any form palatable to the left very very unlikely (I myself teach at one).

Insofar as they educate students, it's fair to say New Zealand universities now are almost wholly vocational (or heading that way) rather than academic – all so that people who have no real business being involved in academia, and who have completely non-academic values, can obtain a picture of themselves capped and gowned to hang on their wall next to the diploma for their Bachelor of Golf Course Management.

Thus, the "students" aren't even the same people. Those who would be recognisable to the students of the 1970s are a small minority. The rest are more or less people looking for a diploma rather than an education. They are inherently conservative, and they have no real interest in politics. The price of a tertiary education does much to encourage this, since non-vocational courses become an expensive luxury (as was intended). This being so, the only students' rights movement you are likely to see in the future is a consumer rights organisation, and that won't get you very far politically.

The universities are completely lost to the left. They are once again populated by the privileged and the aspirational (those who wish to be privileged). You are wasting your time if you think that they are of even the slightest use to the progressive cause. The progressive era of the universities was a mere blip. Normal service has now been resumed.

Anonymous said...

Chris is suggesting that there will be a student uprising of the far left that will rival 19th century protests - all because students will be given a choice whether or not they will join a union. Yeah right.

jh said...

You still can't put an old head on young shoulders Chris.

Michael said...

I am no historian, but I think students in the 60s and 70s were radicalised by things like the Vietnam war and the misguided values of government that supported it. Likewise students now are moved (in our relatively affluent interest-free loan environment) by things bigger than their own needs: the environment, and to some extent global inequality. The new student radicals are green first, left second (if left at all). Perhaps the right/left divide is finally being relegated to history, replaced by the prosperity-first/environment-first divide?

Chris Trotter said...

All I'm suggesting people, is that the inequalities, exploitation and lack of democratic participation which afflicts the rest of capitalist society cannot be magically excluded from the contemporary university.

As all of the contradictions of the larger society grow and sharpen, so, too, will those that beset the university.

The most obvious of these contradictions is that which pitts the university's role as the promoter of scientific investigation and critical thought against the crude vocational demands of the employing class.

The only way these conflicting impulses can be harmonised is if the labour market for university graduates remains bouyant. When graduates can no longer find jobs - or hope for them at the end of their studies - the universities will soon cease to be the quiescent places they are today.

And, since the modern university is a much more authoritarian place than it was in the 1960s and 70s, when the student revolt does come, the official backlash will be savage.

From that moment on the political logic of events leads inevitably to mass agitation and action.

Anonymous said...

OK. I'll bite.

"The most obvious of these contradictions is that which pits the university's role as the promoter of scientific investigation and critical thought against the crude vocational demands of the employing class."

This does not really exist any more. It's the Kitty Genovese rule. Most academics who oppose the current trend would rather keep their heads down and focus on their own narrow specialisation, hoping that their positions will not be cut, and knowing that making a fuss might see their positions targeted for elimination. They are tired and scared: hardly leadership material.

"The only way these conflicting impulses can be harmonised is if the labour market for university graduates remains buoyant. When graduates can no longer find jobs - or hope for them at the end of their studies - the universities will soon cease to be the quiescent places they are today."

I respectfully disagree. Today's students simply do not believe that this will happen to them, and they will maintain such a belief until they cannot find employment. By then, however, they will no longer be part of the university system, and will be someone else's problem.

The average student these days is a product of the self-help industry. Most have fully internalised the belief that success is inevitable if one keeps a "positive mental attitude", and the concomitant Hayekian individualist view of society. There is a fundamental disconnect with reality here.

"And, since the modern university is a much more authoritarian place than it was in the 1960s and 70s, when the student revolt does come, the official backlash will be savage. From that moment on the political logic of events leads inevitably to mass agitation and action."

This is not going to happen. A majority of graduates will get jobs, and will thus be immunised against caring about the unemployed.

Joe Carolan said...

We are the University- video here
http://socialistaotearoa.blogspot.com/2011/09/we-are-university-video.html

Brendan said...

Chris, you wrote:

"The most obvious of these contradictions is that which pitts the university's role as the promoter of scientific investigation and critical thought against the crude vocational demands of the employing class."

I note that others have commented on this statement, and I have a few reflections of my own.

First, there is no 'employing class' in NZ. That's simply a construct fashioned from your imagination. I'm an employer, but have no university education, I suspect that more than half of my business customers are the same. We didn't inherit our businesses, we started them from the ground up. They are SME's and they exist simply because we risked our time and capital, and have learned how to serve customers.

Second, it's the 'employing class' to use your phrase, for all it's vocational rather than academic requirements, that along with it's vocationally gifted employees, who generate the wealth that keeps our Universities funded.

We could do away with this despised class, but we would sacrifice our universities and our relative prosperity in the process.

There is no future for class warfare in New Zealand. I still hear Phill Goff complaining about borrowing to give 'tax cuts for the rich'. You and Phil appear to have adopted the same mantra. While it's not exactly 'hate speech' against a small subset of New Zealanders, it is designed to appeal to the least desirable of humans basic instincts. It's throwing 'red meat' to the masses.

We need more wealthy people in New Zealand, not fewer, and we need to celebrate them, not despise them, or denigrate them.

Our problem is not 'wealthy employers', it's the 1.0M employees in NZ who apparently only have the most basic numeracy and literacy skills.

You cannot build prosperity for all off the ability of a few.

I for one am delighted to hear that today's students are there to learn, are focused, and looking to make a commercial success of their lives. The last thing the country needs is for them to be learning student politics with a view to becoming a labour party MP when they graduate.

KjT said...

Unlikely Chris.

Universities are returning to being a factory to make sure the children of the already wealthy take over all the highly paid positions.

Heaven help us if places are available for the great unwashed to become upwardly mobile.

Like private schools, the value is not in the quality of education, which is often suspect, but, the entry into the "old boy network".

Joe Carolan said...

Occupy Queen Street, Oct 15!http://www.95bfm.com/assets/sm/201975/3/jc.mp3

Jackal said...

Brendan says:

"There is no future for class warfare in New Zealand."

He is right! There is no future whereby inequality increases because of the class warfare National has undertaken against the poor. New Zealand is too small for such short sighted policies that inhibit one class of people to benefit another.

This is a fundamental issue, whereby we must change our entire society so that everybody is equal. In the least, we must reduce poverty to alleviate future costs.

It is beneficial in not only societal terms, but such a thing would also increases productivity within the economy in ways that the current administration could only dream of.

Madison said...

Once again, thanks to comrade Joe for his self promotion and cut and paste postings. Since the law has already passed I like the idea of now doing the demonstration, more an election protest than VSM protest, eh Joe?

Anonymous said...

While all you guys are fussing over this silly stuff Dan Carter is without a functioning groin.
Get your heads out of the sand and wake your ideas up before its too late.

Anonymous said...


@ Brendan

“First, there is no 'employing class' in NZ.”

There must be an employer “class” in New Zealand in that, if people are selling their labour for wages or salary, others by simple logical necessity must be buying it. Insofar as these people have a common interest in lowering labour costs as much as is feasible (and they do if they are not insane), they thus manifest an interest group, or “class”, opposed to those who wish to increase labour costs as much as is feasible (again, if they are not insane). You don’t have to be a Marxist to believe that: it’s a simple fact. As it so happens, those who wish to hold wage costs down tend to find common political cause.

“Second, it's the 'employing class' to use your phrase, for all it's vocational rather than academic requirements, that along with it's vocationally gifted employees, who generate the wealth that keeps our Universities funded.”

You misunderstand how the economy works. It is most certainly not the case that the employing class “generates wealth” that universities burn, nor do you create wealth that the government consumes (the government is not a consumer – this is an elementary economic fallacy). Universities produce many goods that you, directly or indirectly, consume. They produce the sort of research that no private company would produce due to the element of market failure. They train most of the “knowledge workers” that businesses hire (businesses could simply train these workers entirely “in house”, but they collectively pay to outsource it because it is more efficient that way). Universities also produce public, ideational goods without which a democracy could not function properly. Again, the idea that the state sector is a consumer of wealth and not a producer stems from economic illiteracy (a favorite fallacy of the right).

“We could do away with this despised class, but we would sacrifice our universities and our relative prosperity in the process.”

You misrepresent what would more accurately be described as a circular firing squad. Your elementary misunderstanding of basic economic concepts undermines any point you were trying to make.

Brendan said...

@ Anonymous : 2011 1:18 PM

As an employer I do have a very good understanding of how markets in general work and how the employment market works in particular.

I have no ability to 'drive wages down' as you suggest. My highly qualified employees trade their skills on a global market. If I don't pay competitive rates, they simply take their skills elsewhere.

Many of my employees are internationals who have come to New Zealand for a variety of reasons, but still expect to be paid rates that are commensurate with their qualifications and experience.

Furthermore, they expect additional training and annual wage reviews (upwards). I have to provide that to retain their services, and a positive working environment.

In the end, my customers pay for their wages, training and benefits. If I cannot convince them to pay the appropriate rates then we don't have a business, and my employees don't have employment.

If you have no skills to speak of, then yes of course you are at the bottom of the employment heap, and have to 'take what's offered'. What else would you expect?

There is no 'employer conspiriacy' to drive wages down, people are paid what the market considers fair value based upon skill, scarcity, and value.

That's how the system works.

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