Friday 9 September 2011

Eighties' Nostalgia: Student Politics

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose: What the "progressive" student politicians of the 1980s failed to grasp was that the students whose fees paid their honoraria were no longer the revolutionary vanguard they had appeared to be in the 1960s and 70s. They may have dressed like the poor, but, increasingly, students were thinking like the middle-class kids they'd always been. Thirty years on, and progressive politics is something student "unionists" are even less willing to either fight for - or pay for.

WITH THE Voluntary Student Membership Bill about to become law, I was minded of an article I wrote for the Otago University student newspaper, Critic, in June of 1981.

Even thirty years ago it was clear to those willing to take a dispassionate look at the state of student politics that the peak organisation, NZUSA, was becoming further and further removed from its base – the ordinary students of New Zealand.

That the problems then afflicting NZUSA have, over three decades, migrated down to its constituent organisations – the students associations themselves – suggests that such dispassionate analyses of student politics as were published over that time went as unheeded as my own.

These were my concluding remarks:

“The [student] progressive movement, as such, owes its existence to the belief among a minority of New Zealand university students that NZUSA has an important social and political role to play in the development of New Zealand society.

By virtue of their commitment to this belief they have risen to positions of authority in their local student associations, and from there to National Office. In many instances they are developing radical policy positions within NZUSA that would be defeated if put before the rank-and-file of their constituents. Recognising the unrepresentative character of their actions, and yet determined – even at the risk of behaving undemocratically – to promote progressive policies, they have moved further and further away from the people who elected them: the students.

Isolated from their members and divided among themselves, progressive student politicians continue to pass policy motion after policy motion – all the time aware that effective action based on their own decisions is virtually impossible – the mass student support being non-existent.

[ … ]

The obvious need within NZUSA at the present time is for a drastic shift of power away from the upper echelons – National Office, student [association] executives – towards the student body. Only when policies arise out of political action at the grass-roots level, and only when those policies are based on the objective needs and genuine aspirations of students, can NZUSA lay claim, once again, to the title of a democratic representative institution.”

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Loz said...

I don't agree that Students Association politics have been radical; I actually believe it represent a very narrow orthodoxy that is quite reactionary and retrenched.

The problems of representation within Students’ Associations are in many ways an inverted image of the problems with national level politics. The beliefs in Parliamentary and Student politics are very different but the willingness of "representatives" to implement policies not widely supported has been the same.

I'm saddened by what VSM will do to Students' Associations although I am convinced that until the concept of democracy is affirmed by the left wing all progressive organisations will tend to be captured by cliques who hold contempt for the views of “normal” or “mainstream” New Zealanders. That was true for the Labour Party, Walsh’s Federation of Labour and modern Students’ Associations.

To be of value, democracy has to be about much more than the strategic manoeuvring of gaining power as a result of an election process. To that ends, representative democracy has badly failed.

Madison said...

Chris, this is possibly one of the best things to be posted by the left on this whole subject yet. I disagree with the compulsory membership mostly because the average student is not involved and many organisations, such as VUWSA, continued to take more extreme stances without any actual student body support. If there was a more serious involvement in student body politics I think the bill wouldn't have made it this far, but in light of the general situation I can only hope that the most valuable resources managed by the Student Unions remain.

When I was in University in the US everyone was allowed a vote on the Unions, as now, yet the members on the board were unpaid, only getting meals and having to apply for assistance for anything they could not fundraise through collections and some small sales operations. The student radio station was managed and funded by the broadcasting school, the study programs had their own department from university management as well as student run tutoring programs. The resources to help students were still made available without being managed by the unions and this will hopefully still happen here.

Robert Winter said...

Eighties? Luxury! You should have been there in the 60s. Eeh, they were the days.

Anonymous said...

Who's in charge of what & what goes where i presume...all in the name of freedom, democracy, equality, liberation, the trees and that old 'left' chestnut fairness.

Only one small problem was...that person over there isn't as deserving of the name as me!

And so the great world 'conspiracy' goes, all the way to the grand inter-breeding 'architects' at the top who think it is theirs.

Charles Pigden said...

Isn't this just an instance of a general problem with democracy? Activists of all sorts are interested in politics: most people are not. But it is only activists who stand for office, which means that it is only activists that get elected. Thus in democratic organizations of all sorts from parliaments through student unions to cat clubs, the elected representatives tend to be unrepresentative of the people that they represent. The MP is fundamentally unlike her constituents because she cares about politics a lot more than they do and the same goes in spades for the student politician (At least in a general election most people care enough to vote: not so in most student elections.) I have no idea what to do about this problem. . Direct (as opposed to representative) democracy is obviously not the answer since it leads to the Tyranny of Those Who Turn Up.

Chris Trotter said...

We could always do what the Ancient Athenians did, Charles, and still do for Jury service: choose our representatives by lot. I sometimes think we could hardly do much worse (Tau Henare anyone?) and, who knows, we might even do better!

Anonymous said...

I'd take issue with students' associations these days really being overly activist/progressive. Most normally content themselves with lobbying on fees or other education-related stuff, rather than the major social issues of the day.

The other thing to note is that since the great mass of students do not participate in terms of voting, you get a battle between Those Who Turn Up, and those who for reasons of their own play the silent majority card (in reality, the silent majority literally doesn't care). The result can actually be aggressive apathy: those who do have an opinion can find themselves labelled as pesky minorities by the leadership.

Victor said...


You've hit on the greatest weakness of Democracy. It grants office to people who are not just untypically interested in politics but who are also normally untypically ambitious and, in recent years at least, increasingly "needy" and in search of adulation (c.f. Clinton, Blair).

To my mind, the only half decent US President of the postwar epoch was Harry S Truman, who strayed into national politics quite late in life, took some convincing before he agreed to join FDR on the 1944 Democratic ticket and was then horrified to be foisted into supreme office by Roosevelt's untimely death.

But, unfortunately, no-one's yet devised a system that's guaranteed to bring modestly reluctant, ordinary, public-spirited people like "Give'Em Hell, Harry", to the top.

Instead, we're inevitably landed with those pursuing policy obsessions, career goals, celebrity or all of the above.

Apart from the Athenian system, the only other alternative is Monarchy, which at least allows for one significant role to be filled on a non-voluntary basis. How 'normal' the incumbents are is, of course, another matter.

Loz said...

Charles may well be right; representatives may (by definition) be personally unrepresentative of their constituents. Surely then, a democratic commitment would encourage additional processes for ensuring that decision making was not exclusively & irreproachably in the hands of such a body? Binding referendums, recalls and initiatives are variations to representative democracy that could have merit yet they are concepts quite foreign in New Zealand.

That doesn’t suggest that those being represented actually want to be involved with decision-making. Athenian democracy entailed roping off the market and physically herding citizens into the assembly. Campus couldn’t be roped off in the same way but it would have been extremely easy for any student union to develop systems that ensured representatives weren’t isolating the student body.

It's incredibly simple for any union membership to be regularly electronically polled with "initiatives" yet that level of direct participation would have been resisted by most representatives. I can only guess that resistance toward being bound by the decisions of the general membership would appear to be the most obvious reason why well established technology isn’t being utilised in extending franchise and participation in either Student Associations or political parties.