CHLOE SWARBRICK is a mystery. Whip smart and unafraid of courting controversy, she is also frustratingly conventional when it comes to solutions. Her latest cause, battling student poverty, illustrates the problem very neatly.
Very few would dispute Swarbrick’s contention that no citizen should be expected to suffer poverty – not even those who, in five to ten years’ time, will find themselves among the top 5 percent of income earners. Paying an exorbitant sum for the privilege of freezing in a leaky, moldy flat is not a “rite of passage” to be endured. It is exploitation pure and simple, and should not be permitted.
But why ring-fence these instances of exploitation with the term “student poverty”? Like the term “child poverty” it pretends that privation and exploitation can be situated in discrete categories and remediated piecemeal. As a political tactic, it is not only self-defeating, but also morally questionable. (And that is being kind!)
In what ethical universe is it acceptable to pour resources into the amelioration of “student” and “child” poverty, while those who are not students or children are permitted to slowly fade from the big poverty picture?
How could it possibly be okay to support university students with an allowance of $400 per week, while refusing to pay young unemployed individuals more than $200 per week? Why would you advocate for a rent cap on student accommodation, while doing nothing about the rack-renting of low-paid workers and their families?
Advocacy of this sort cannot help but convince those who find themselves outside the ranks of the “deserving poor” that they are socially worthless. Students need support because very soon they’ll be running the country. Today’s law students are tomorrow’s lawyers and judges. Today’s med students are tomorrow’s doctors. Today’s communications studies students are tomorrow’s prime ministers. But today’s functionally illiterate high-school drop-outs are tomorrow’s what? Drug addicts? Prostitutes? Gang members? Convicts? Who needs them?
Intended, or not, there is the unpleasant odour of class politics about Swarbrick’s attack on student poverty. Understandable, I suppose, after 40 years of neoliberalism. These days we look after our own.
Interviewed on RNZ’s “Morning Report”, Swarbrick lamented what she described as 40 years of deliberate disempowerment of university students as a force for political and social change. Although she is far too young to have any personal memories of the days when the nation’s campuses seethed with radical ideas, and student demonstrations against war and racial injustice numbered in the tens-of-thousands, Swarbrick was clearly aware how decidedly the times have changed. Particularly damaging, she suggested, was the abolition of compulsory student union membership. Its demise had fatally weakened the student movement.
“Bullshit!”, I shouted at the radio. Student unions, compulsory or voluntary, had little to do with the explosion of student radicalism in the 1970s and 80s. In fact, these student “associations” were inherently conservative institutions.
No, student radicalism arose from a heady brew of individual self-discovery, fearless teachers, and the challenging headlines of the era. It bubbled-up out of the vigorous, open-handed, social-democratic society post-war New Zealand had become. And, when neoliberalism buried that society in the late-1980s and 90s, student radicalism died with it.
Swarbrick’s demand for a top-down reinvigoration of the student movement is symbolic of a generation that has yet to experience the sheer joy of finding its own power. If she paused to reflect for a moment, Swarbrick would remember top-down is never the answer.
New Zealand’s universities are bursting at the seams with young people: scores-of-thousands of them concentrated in seven campuses – usually not that far from the heart of the cities in which they are located. What could these young people not achieve if they decided to shake off the ideological chains in which they have allowed themselves to become enmeshed? What concessions could they not extract from the Powers That Be when once they learned that what unites human-beings is infinitely more compelling than what divides them?
Perhaps Swarbrick and the Greens could begin by urging tomorrow’s lawyers, doctors and prime ministers to tackle poverty and injustice with the same selfless dedication as Christchurch’s “Student Army” tackled the aftermath of a killer earthquake.
Poverty – not “student poverty” – is the enemy. Fight it in unity. Historically-speaking, students’ power reaches its zenith, morally and politically, when they’re putting the needs of others ahead of their own.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday 22 July 2022.