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.
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.