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May 12, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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What is a student’s place in the university?

In her reply to AUS (Association of University Staff), NZUSA (New Zealand Union of Students Association) and of course VUWSA, Deborah Willis argued against the request we made in relation to her standing down from the Film School Change Committee. She also argued against the request made by all three parties to have a student placed on the change committee. Her reasons for making this decision were as follows:

“Whilst I agree that students are the most important stakeholder group for University, I do not accept that accountability for students should be extended to recommendations about programme structures and staffing requirements. In fact, it would be inappropriate for any form of accountability in this regard to extend to students and, accordingly, it would be inappropriate for a student representative to be added to the Decision Panel. As far as I am aware, there has never been a student representative on any Decision Panel for such a proposal.”

Students pay around $5000 a year on course costs, let alone living costs (Another $10-20k at least). That’s $5000 directly for their education each year. $15k in total over three years (as long as they don’t fail any course). And we’re being told that we have no say about what we think programme structures of staffing levels should be. Students are there on the ground. We are the people receiving this so called “education”. Yet we have no say over this? We are expected to be passive users of what is more and more becoming (at undergrad level at least) a form of glorified vocational education.

Why do people get degrees overwhelmingly these days? To get a job. The question I get asked when I reveal that I’m planning on leaving Uni with a Gender and Women’s Studies major is “What the fuck sort of job will that get you?”, my answer is usually something like “Ministry of Women’s Affairs”. Because quite frankly this attitude against student involvement in University affairs is tied very closely with this attitude of University education as a short term practical qualification for personal gain.

I believe in two things. The first is that students have every right to as a starting point be involved in the final say on matters concerning the University i.e. themselves. We are the reason this place exists. Just because we have not got a student on one of these panels before doesn’t mean we should never have one on. I believe that it is actually an illustration on why there should be students making these decisions. The current climate in this University, and within tertiary education, is worrying and it is dangerous. Look at the University’s track record this year. Film School is a case in point. What we need to do is start looking at who tertiary education is for, and how that reflects on the current situation.

As students we are here because of the surplus value that is extracted from those who work. That is where our taxes come from, they work so that we can study. We owe it to those workers, those who ultimately source the ability to provide education, to return the favour, return the debt.

We owe this working class a debt, that is unavoidable. When I talk of free education, I acknowledge there is nothing free about it. There is a debt and that debt is currently valued in dollars. We are forced into a position of starting our working careers with this financial burden. There are other ways of valuing this. Students at University generally (there are of course exceptions to this rule, there always are) become improved in their labour productivity, through professional development (law, teaching, science) or through development of mental capacity (the arts). The point of all the above is to train in the art of thinking.

The overburdened, micromanaged set-up that is the current system does not facilitate any of what is the reason for studying. We have assignments due most weeks, we have 12 weeks as opposed to a full year (that was the norm many years ago). On top of that is the average of 14 hours a week that every student works. It all adds up to an impressive time pressure. The structure of the system itself is designed to produce drones. And the drones who get through need to have immediate financial pressures to force them into servitude (or slavery to a wage).

What we should be doing is giving back what we have gained from tertiary (that includes Polytechs, because they’re bloody important in all this) and return it to the people who gave us the ability to take the option of education in the first place, this class of workers. In a number of countries around the world, students enter into an agreement of bonding themselves to the state (directly to the people is better, but this is a start) in recognition of the future benefit they will bring to themselves. They give three years of their time, paid of course, to help the people who provided these students with the opportunity to learn. These are the taxi drivers, the cleaners, the factory workers, who while receiving no direct benefit of a tertiary education system, receive the secondary benefits.

Say what you want about Cuba, but their medical training systems are something we should look at. They take in Cuban and Third World students, train them and then retain their indentured labour for a number of years to help the Cuban people and also the people of the wider Third World. Cuban trained doctors played a huge role in the aftermath of the Boxing Day Tsunami.

Put simply $NZ90,000 is the same value in London as it is in Taumarunui. If we put a simple dollar value on this debt then we’ll lose every time. We’ve got to think smarter, but right now, this University would prefer it if we didn’t.

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