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February 27, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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How Fucked Are We?

In the coming days, Dr. John Hood, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, will face yet another revolt in his nearly18 month tenure at the University. It’s not the first he’s faced. If he survives it probably will not be the last. John Hood used to be the Vice-Chancellor at Auckland University. He bought over a business mind, and a hard production line mentality to his job. Oxford University was slipping behind the 8-ball financially, but Hood’s attempt to move Oxford towards an increased research based focus for financial reasons, at what some say would be at the cost of Oxford’s legendary low student-lecturer ratios was met with an uproar. Dr. John Hood is an esteemed New Zealander exporting what he knows from home to the world’s most prestigious university. He currently sits on thin ice.

It’s an example that got me thinking. No one debates Oxford’s place as a top university. It’s hallowed, it’s part of the canon, it is to academics what two ounces of Morocco’s freshly cut finest is to Snoop. And a New Zealander is in the process of getting fired for doing things a little more like the way we do them back home. Over a stiff cup of early morning coffee the other day my eyes glanced over a letter to the editor in the Dominion Post by a Mr Richard Heerdegen of Otaki. He quotes an article on the case telling of how “some academics have accused Dr Hood of trampling on centuries of collegiate tradition in attempting to run the universities in the style of a business” before signing off congratulating Oxford staff for standing up to Hood’s proposed changes, where other university’s staff have merely ‘rolled over and are now nothing more than dispensable functionaries in education enterprises’. It hit close to home. In the past 6 months I’ve heard talks from this university about costs, profit and turnover. I’ve heard talk that sounds more in line with a Coca Cola annual stock report than a university. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone remark about teaching quality being on the move or student satisfaction being on the up. Dollar signs are everywhere.

But aside from talk of money, profit and turnover I’ve also heard a lot of other talk around this University. Talk about how a viciously profit driven organization called the Union controls student facilities with such little interest for students that they even dropped the title of ‘Student’ from the name altogether. I’ve heard of students so disinterested in student politics, the same students I hear complaining that they’re sick of the food offered by money hungry food companies handed monopolies. I’ve heard of organizations within this university at war over control of the Union Building. I’ve witnessed first hand a student magazine taken to court by the university it serves. I’ve heard of trades being worth more than degrees, of unemployed, intelligent graduates. I hear a lot these days.

If you believe everything you read about the University it’s easy to get depressed. With a new year starting I thought it was the right time to talk to those in the know about the University and if there was any validity to the criticisms. I spoke to one current and one past VUWSA president, I spoke to the Vice-Chancellor, the head of the Union and the head of Vic Careers. With their input I wanted to evaluate one question. As Victoria University students- just how fucked are we?

I realized I was being vague. Just how fucked are we? It’s pretty open ended and in that regard that it can point in a number of different directions. I for one wanted to keep it tied in to Victoria University and the problems this university and its students currently face. I saw no better way to start than with 2005 VUWSA President Jeremy Greenbrook. Greenbrook was upbeat about a number of things that I went into this story viewing as negatives. What about the injunction? VUWSA’s war with the Union? “I’ve got a lot of respect for Pat Walsh, and his work. The University are a professional bunch and won’t hold on to [the injunction] and anything that happened. Jude Urlich [University Public Relations] is a nice lady- she will put that all behind her and focus on a new year, with new Salient and VUWSA staff.”

The Union relationship, he tells me, is on the mend with “a lot of work being done in the previous year to try and mend a few bridges,” the success of which will soon be seen. For those of you who are unaware, the Union (formerly named the Student Union) is the organization that have control of the Union Building (formerly named and still commonly referred to as the Student Union Building) and are currently involved in litigation with VUWSA for control over the building. It’s an argument that directly affects how the central hub of the university (check out issue 4 of Salient last year for a more in depth discussion on it) and how the power to make changes is allocated. The Union controls it. VUWSA wants more control. Greenbrook won’t make a comment on the ongoing litigation stating simply that the situation is legally sensitive and not worth jeopardizing. I throw the example of Eastside at him, our (ex) student pub. The Union’s re-branding of Eastside, a student pub which students at least identified as their own. It’s change to the Mount Street Bar and Café was made without any consultation with the students. “Well that was a little silly, and it could have been done better. We weren’t consulted, we were just told it was going to happen.” It is indicative of problems I would raise further with the Union and current President Nick Kelly. An organization has control of a student-used asset and has no intention of involving the Students Association. Despite Greenbrook’s claims of mending fences, it still seems a little ludicrous for the Union to have such power.

Our talk spread to the wider issues that lead to the Salient injunction last year, the issue of fees and the expense of education in this country. Students, it seems, will not be happy until education is free. A stance Greenbrook doesn’t agree with. “Tertiary education brings with it too many major benefits and gains to be free. Affordable, yes. But free? No. As for universal student allowances, why should somebody that lives at home and travels into university every day be able to claim money to live from the government?”

University fees are on the up – that is indisputable. A decrease in foreign students is seen as one of the major causes for the increasing fees. Foreign students are a cash cow that are being milked to great success. You only have to look at the high numbers of Asian students in commerce papers to see this. However with numbers of foreign students falling, and the possibility of such globally cataclysmic events such as bird flu or oil crash – wouldn’t a university be nervous? “Victoria has one of the lowest rates of foreign students in the country so we are a little better off. And if things really got that bad, the government would save things. Michael Cullen? Trevor Mallard? They are all graduates of our university. You think they are going to let the university just slide into disrepair?”

Nick Kelly, like Greenbrook, is confident that the relationship between the students and the University has improved and is in good stead. “With Peter Fell gone from facilities management, it really feels like things are going forward. VUWSA is getting a lot more respect. They realize that by involving us they can reach solutions that help everybody. It’s a huge change from Stuart [McCutcheon, former Vice-Chancellor], who was so hard line in trying to put VUWSA in what he saw as its place.”

In regards to VUWSA’s current relationship with the Union, Kelly is not as optimistic. He cites the recent example of the New Zealand University Students Association (NZUSA) as a textbook case of the troubles they face with the Union. It is also a situation where you can see who the Student Association’s real friends are. NZUSA has always had free access to function rooms for their conferences. It’s due to their historical ties to the university and the reality of what they do, serving our students. Except when they went to hold their national conference in Wellington, suddenly the cost to use the rooms was 8000 dollars. “It’s pretty typical of the way they operate, the Union. They just have to push things too far, and an outside force usually has to snap them back into reality.” That outside force came from none other than Pat Walsh, the Vice-Chancellor, who along with another counsel member were apparently pretty “outraged” at the money being charged and came down on the Union, forcing them to waive the fee.

Examples of the Union wielding power spread far, from trying to claim the revenue from clubs days, to exercising power of veto over Orientation sponsors (a festival that they play no major part in organizing). They even forced the expulsion of Student Job Search out of the Union Building. A move that put Victoria University in a curious position as the only University in the country to charge Student Job Search for occupancy, which one would assume is earned given the service SJS performs. The work performed by Students in Wellington this summer alone comes in at around $8 million. SJS is also a major factor in helping foreign students find work and keeping them in the country. When I spoke to Student Job Search’s regional manager for Wellington Jill Wainwright, she remarked simply “that it was a real shame to be moved out of the central student hub.” Kelly sees it as “just another example of the Union making the building a little less user friendly for the students it seeks to serve and another example of students not getting the best deal.” Jeremy Greenbrook saw the whole thing as “lacking a little thought.” You’d have to agree with them. Student Job Search is pivotal to students. It belonged where it was, instead of being shunned down the far end of Mount Street.

Kelly sees the Union as indicative of wider student exploitation across the university. “Students are definitely being exploited, and in an obvious way. It’s not really being hidden at all.” We run over the different areas one by one. “We’re seeing very little focus on the actual students at a university level. Students are neglected by PBRF (Performance Based Research Funding) which sees a huge academic focus on research instead of teaching.”

Student Services are at a near shocking level. The Library may be on the up, but has spent “so long being neglected it is going to be on the back foot for a long time,” says Kelly. The Union has handed food contracts out with scant regard for students. “It’s shonky and without strategy. Students are paying a lot and not really getting anything.” Ironically the Union are making little out of the monopolistic situation they have created. “They should, but they don’t. Their hard line stance hasn’t equated into much. Eurest do well though.” Kelly says with a wry smile.

Hope may be at hand though. Although Kelly again can’t comment on the litigation between the Union and VUWSA, he tells me that they are working towards a solution alongside representatives from the Union and the University, a solution that will hopefully divide power more evenly (looking at systems in place at other Universities around the country) between the two parties and give VUWSA the power to make decisions over a building their students use everyday.

Rainsforth Dix, for all that is said about the evils of the Union, is a lovely lady, with a kick ass corner view office. She’s nice, but she doesn’t have to be mean to get her way. I don’t know. Sometimes I think she’s nice because she doesn’t have to be mean to do what she wants, she just can. What does she see as the primary task of the Union? “We are responsible for organizing the recreational, social, cultural side of student life.” Student life you say? Then why drop the title of ‘student’ from their name? “Well we also give services to staff. And when you look at it 42% of students at Victoria are mature, so we didn’t want to focus it too directly and give too much attention to the title of ‘students’.” It’s in these situations that I get annoyed and if my Mum was around she’d sense my growing rage and calmly tell me to be respectful. She went on to claim that what she referred to as “mature students” wouldn’t want to get tarred with the “student” label. Yet she originally referred to them as mature “students”. Why come to university if you don’t want to be called a student? And isn’t everyone at this university a student from the very second they enroll? I’ll move on. But this wasn’t going to be the first time in this interview the smell of bullshit pervaded the room.

We moved on to the relationship with VUWSA. Dix is very positive about VUWSA. “There’s been some confusion in the past and some tension. But we feel like we currently have a very positive relationship with them.” Then what does she make of the thinly veiled threats to charge NZUSA $8000 and put locks on the doors of the conference rooms if they didn’t comply? “Well I didn’t hear anything about that.” Dix replies as if I am trying to talk her into believing that man never landed on the moon. Later on I run this past Nick Kelly. “Oh, she knew about it alright” he tells me, a pronounced grin wrapping around his face.

So, they dropped “students” from their name and have made decisions that on the surface level seem openly hostile towards students, eradicating vital student services one by one and making student decisions with nary a glance the way of the students, the ones actually affected by all of this? Again the example of Eastside is bought up, “we involved VUWSA in every step of the change” Dix tells me. Not so, say Kelly and Greenbrook who both say they were just simply told that the change was going to be made.

A factor that was raised with me when discussing this story with a range of sources was the idea of VUWSA actually moving out of the Union building and into the Quad, moving to the University’s heart. “It would be a sad thing. But key student services would be in a better area” Dix remarks. If this happened it would undoubtedly be a sad thing, leaving a student resource to be held hostage in the name of profit, without a shade of a student conscience to quell the business laden urges of the Union. Whether or not degrees had become commodities, it felt a lot like students were being milked as cash cows.

OK, OK- you’ve got the point. Student services suck, (SCS though is actually pretty good, Victoria being one of few universities to provide 24 hour computer labs.) Factions at war. Students getting a raw deal. But once you’ve had four years of tithing half your income to whatever Eurest sometimes implausibly labels as food, do you have a degree of any worth? Will you get yourself a job?

I headed over to Liz Medford at Vic Careers. Is your degree really worth anything? There’s so much talk these days of the B(ugger).A(ll) and trades being the real money maker, of kids being forced into education, dropping out with no degrees and large debts. And then there are the graduates, left high and dry with out jobs. Medford says that this negativity is a media creation. “People still enroll after all. People come in and they want to know how to use their degrees to their advantages. Job advertisements are up 35 percent. There are jobs out there. A lot of it falls on the graduate though, you need to know your skills and know what you are looking for.”

“A degree is not just a vocational thing. It’s much more broadly based. You are going to get certain skills no matter what. It gives you a huge amount of life skills too. The job market ebbs and flows, it is very cyclical and if the market is down, you’ll still have your degree when it picks back up again.” Our talk moves on to trades, and whether or not people are getting pushed into university from school with little regard for what they actually want to do. “Career counselling in schools is pretty scant and thin. And I think maybe there is an element of assumption in higher decile schools and in wealthier homes that you are going to go to university. Which does put an extra stress on the whole education system.” But what of this infamous skill shortage? “It’s not an either/or situation in terms of apprenticeships and going to university. One doesn’t cancel the other out. There is a skills shortage. But not everyone wants to be a plumber or an electrician.”

On my way out Medford hands me statistics taken from a 2004 survey of graduates across the country. Fifty-eight percent of Victoria graduates move out into fulltime employment. Four and a half percent below the NZ university average, but then Victoria has a higher percentage of graduates moving onto post-graduate study. Our graduate unemployment rate stands at 5.6 percent, 0.6 of a percent above the university average. There’s no cause for serious concern. Our factions may be at war, but at least we can earn some coin afterwards. And isn’t that the point right?

My travels ended up at the door of Vice-Chancellor Professor Pat Walsh. He has a great big office, but he doesn’t quite have Rainsforth Dix’s view. He didn’t really offer me anything new. It was kind of surprising, the University is definitely a friend of VUWSA’s, and Pat Walsh is no Stuart McCutcheon, but I don’t think I caught him at his most inspired and animated moment. We talked Salient, we talked students, we talked the Union/VUWSA debacle (and I got an interestingly watered down middle ground version of events that) but I couldn’t actually report back with any new insight.
I was slightly disappointed. No real comment was made on PBRF, he wouldn’t weigh in on the criticism of the VC’s position being that of a CEO, and he even said nice things about us at Salient. It was like interviewing a press release.

There was one excerpt from our conversation that stayed with me for a while afterwards though. When we were talking about the plight of students at Victoria, Walsh looked his most animated. “It’s harder now. I think back to the dark ages when I was at university and it was a whole different ballgame. We had trivial sized fees and you could survive for a whole year on what you earned over summer. There are money pressures now that make it much harder.” Walsh then goes on to admit that education will probably never be free again, that they’re doing their best to keep costs down for students. Meh. You can see the sentiment can’t you? But it’s been said and it’s been contradicted.

Talking to the various factions of the University, students are at times given scant consideration. As students we’re not fucked at this University, just a little forgotten. Times have changed, Pat Walsh is right. University is going to be a little bit different than it was in yesteryear, but students have to stand up for themselves- and when 6 percent of students vote in VUWSA elections, you can taste the apathy.

My mind wanders back to something that Nick Kelly said; “There’s a lot of pressure on students sometimes to do something big, that when they take a stand it’s got to mean a lot. So there’s quite a lot on the line in any student movement. But that being said if there is going to be change it’s got to come from the students. They’ve got to make it an issue.”

Makes you think, ha?

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About the Author ()

James Robinson is a university dropout turned journalist who likes to pretend he has an honours degree. Turn ons include soup, scarfs, a hot bath and some FM-smooth Kenny G-esque instrumental jazz. Turn offs include student politicians, the homeless, and people who pronounce it supposebly.

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