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October 2, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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The Labour Party

New Zealand’s second-biggest political party, Labour has traditionally been popular with student voters due to its support of a universal student allowance and interest-free loans. But its recent poor performance in the polls suggests that Labour’s left-leaning social policies are failing to make enough of an impact to challenge National in the upcoming election. Salient writer and 2012 co-editor Ollie Neas talks to their Tertiary Education spokesman David Shearer on how a Labour Government would benefit students.

Ollie: In response to the ‘We are the University’ protests that have been held at the Auckland and Victoria Universities, Steven Joyce stated that students should “keep their heads down” because they are reasonably well looked after already. Do you agree with those comments?
David Shearer: I think his comments were heavy handed; I didn’t agree with them. Frankly, I think Steven Joyce should just quietly butt out. Students don’t normally go out and demonstrate for no good reason. There’s normally a pretty good reason … the other part of it is that the student protests are an important principle. They are something that I certainly grew up with at my time at university. It was sort of like a school master telling off students. It came off as patronising.

Ollie: So you do think the protests were valid then?
DS: Certainly. Some of the protests around voluntary student membership are particularly valid. I actually think the VSM Bill–the voluntary student membership–is a really abhorrent piece of legislation that is designed to crush student associations. So, for that reason, student associations standing up for what is theirs is entirely legitimate and right.

Ollie: You are entirely opposed to VSM?
DS: We have opposed it from the very beginning. We have taken quite a lot of criticism for the tactics we have used in Parliament to oppose it, but we felt that criticism was worth taking because we felt it was a bad piece of legislation. It’s a piece of legislation that I don’t believe National even supports. In fact, we were very close to a compromise deal with them a few months ago. What happened was it became involved with politics. Heather Roy was dumped as Minister and she picked up the Voluntary Student Membership Bill as kind of her consolation package. The National Party, in a sense, was obliged to get in behind it and support it… There is a democratic way of bringing that about that is in the legislation at the moment, i.e. having a referendum, and we didn’t dismiss that in the new legislation. It’s a heavy handed Parliament telling students what to do with their lives. It will undoubtedly destroy the very institutions which students depend on, and what will happen—as it’s happened everywhere else—is that universities will charge students for the same services that they are already getting through their students’ associations. That’s going to happen. So students will get taxed without being represented.

Ollie: More specifically, what do you envisage that compromise you mentioned earlier to look like?
DS: The idea is that students sign up for the students’ association but they have a period of time during which they can opt out.

Ollie: Like the English model?
DS: A little bit like the English model, or a little bit like Kiwisaver. You can opt out if you want to. … But on the whole it allowed most students to just carry on. What VSM has done has weighted it in the other way so inevitably students’ associations will be left with no money. So, for that reason, we will repeal it when we come back into government.

Ollie: Do you see any quality in the idea of allowing students to be free to associate with students’ associations as they choose? Do you agree at all with that side of the spectrum?
DS: I see student associations a bit like membership of a society which provides you with benefits that are a part of university or polytechnic as an experience. So, as a result of that, you sign up for it. If however you feel really really strongly, I’m happy for you again to opt out. But I don’t think that the analogy of it to be something like a workers’ union is an accurate analogy. … the bottom line is, you’re going to be billed for this if voluntary student membership comes in because many of the services that student associations provide very cost effectively will simply not be available unless the university funds it.

Ollie: On that note, Steven Joyce’s Education Amendment Bill No. 4 seeks to control what the university can spend with the money gained from compulsory student services levy, which will probably go up after VSM. Do you think it should be the role of the government to decide what the university spends its money on, or do you think the university should have the autonomy to do that themselves?
DS: The reason we supported Amendment Bill Four was because we felt that there was some real value in having students consulted and having a degree of say in how the levy is going to be spent. For us that was a big advantage. There was some evidence that universities were using that levy to fund other parts of the university, so in a way it made that clear. The difficulty is that universities will have to charge an increased levy… as a result of the VSM bill going through. At one point the government’s been sort of hypocritical. On the one hand, it’s saying the fees are getting too high and we’re going to try and fix that by sorting out the universities and giving students an opportunity to look at that. On the other hand, it’s quashing students’ association and charging students for the services they’re already getting through the students’ association, but not giving them as much say in how those services will be spent. Does that make sense?

Ollie: Approaching the election, what are the biggest issues facing students?
DS: Access is the biggest issue for students. This has been a fundamental value of the Labour Party since its inception. It means every student that meets the requirement should have the opportunity to go on to tertiary education, no matter what their personal circumstances. Access is the key principle. For that reason, in 2005 we took interest off student loans. We have worked towards a universal student allowance; we don’t think we’ll be able to do that, but over time that’s where we would like to be. I think National is very reluctant and they’re still very unhappy about going along with the interest off student loans. …while they haven’t said they will revoke it, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after the election, they turn around and reapply some interest on student loans. The other issue is the over fifty-fives. There are some restrictions on over fifty-fives getting those living allowances. I think that’s a backwards step given that our workforce is ageing. Everybody should be given the ability to go back to tertiary institutes to retrain for whatever they need to do.

Ollie: So the student allowance should be universal?

DS: In a sense. We should not be putting a restriction that you can’t be 55 and over. I think that’s discriminatory basically.

Ollie: Tertiary fees have risen quite significantly in the last couple of years. At Vic, they’ve risen 100 per cent since 1997. Do you think that this discourages young people from attending tertiary institutions?

DS: Yes, it does. Obviously if fees go up, what you’re effectively doing is putting the burden on running a university onto students, rather than funding universities adequately. In effect that’s the balance. You either put a lot of money into universities or you charge the students more who take out bigger loans and ultimately cost the government more in the long term. So I think the policy that we’re looking at is to look at the ways in which universities are being funded, but at the same time … look at restrictions on how much universities can increase fees year on year. At the moment it’s four per cent.

Ollie: You talk about providing more adequate funding, and you have also criticised Steven Joyce for effectively increasing university fees throughout National’s time in government, does that mean Labour will increase funding to university institutions?
DS: Our policy is—both in science and research as well as tertiary—that we’re very conscious that if we don’t have quality universities, which means they need to be funded adequately, then we’re not going to be able to compete with universities overseas and we’re not going to keep our young people here back in New Zealand… Our aim is to keep New Zealanders in New Zealand—obviously they travel, but you want them to come back—and to make our institutions as well-funded as possible. Our institutions have been underfunded and so therefore we are looking at the ways in which we can increase funding to those institutions so they are able to grow without having to massively hike student fees.

Ollie: What part do tertiary institutions play in Labour’s vision of a highly-skilled, innovative economy? How do they interact?
DS: They interact in a couple of ways for me. Obviously funding is a key component… In terms of the science and research spending, we would be pushing for our public research spending to be increased to the OECD average, so that we are able to compete with like-minded, like-sized countries. Now we’re not going to get anywhere close to places like Singapore and Finland, but it’s still a step in the right direction. It’s in contrast to what happened this year in the 2011 budget; the science and research budget actually fell by $12 million rather than went up. A lot of that will transfer across into universities because universities will obviously take some of that funding as well… I guess if there’s one other area, it’s looking at the way that we can get some of our innovation centres inside the university to work more effectively with the private sector.

Ollie: The most recent polling puts Labour on 28 per cent. Can Labour win this election?
DS: Yes. First of all, we’re in the middle of the Rugby World Cup at the moment. Nobody really is focussed on politics… Second thing is that no party has got above 50 per cent since 1951 under a completely different system. So National, while they are polling high now, I think most of the pundits would be very surprised if they went above 50 per cent. The question then becomes who supports them under 50 per cent? ACT is quietly unravelling as we speak. So we have a situation then where the alternative in the wings is a centre-left government…

Ollie: Phil Goff is polling particularly low. Why do you think Phil Goff is so unpopular with the New Zealand public?
DS: I think overall, a lot of people haven’t seen Phil Goff other than in a ministerial role where he’s had his head down … he just hasn’t had a lot of the airtime that obviously a Prime Minister gets. So again I think with the election, in the last few weeks people will start to see Phil more, and un-edited more in the sense that it’s not going to be a political commentator that chops three seconds out and slots it into TV. Having him sitting alongside John Key in a debate, I think people will be pleasantly surprised about how Phil comes across.

Ollie: Do you think the media then has had a role in not portraying Phil Goff adequately?
DS: Yeah. The way that politicians are seen is through the way the media decides to portray them. All leaders have honeymoons and I think John Key has had a particularly long honeymoon. And we have been dogged by difficult times, which play to an incumbent Prime Minister. So, for example, the earthquakes and things like that. They were tragedies, but it gives much more visibility to a Prime Minister to be seen to be doing the right thing. We can argue around the edges but John Key’s been out there and on the ground, and it’s really difficult to combat that…

Ollie: In a couple of words, why should students vote Labour in this coming election?

DS: When you look back at what Labour has done, Labour has consistently stood by students. We have stood by students through voluntary student membership at cost to ourselves; we’ve been roundly criticised for it. With student loans, we’ve taken the interest off them. Our goal is a much more affordable, universal student allowance. When you actually look at our record, we have been the party that has stood by students much more than the National Party has been.

Ollie: Anything else of interest to students?
DS: One thing I should say that is going to benefit students is our proposal for a tax-free first $5000. That will actually benefit students a lot. A lot of students will be doing part-time work as they go through their studies. That $5000 means they will walk away with more in their hand.

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About the Author ()

Ollie served dutifully alongside Asher Emanuel as Co-editor of Salient throughout the tumult of 2012. He has contributed to Salient since 2011 and intends to do so for the rest of his waking life.

Comments (1)

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  1. Billy says:

    The Labour and National parties have both equally undermined student rights. Stepping away from free tertiary education, which is what Labour began and National continued with, is stepping towards a country with citizens full of debt. Free tertiary education is a smart economic move, and completely attainable, too.

    “We have worked towards a universal student allowance; we don’t think we’ll be able to do that, but over time that’s where we would like to be.” That means a lot. N ice how they say they introduced interest-free student loans but not that they introduced student debt.

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