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March 12, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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We Are The University: Past and Future

There was some discussion last year in the national media and commentary blogs about a rebirth of student activism here in New Zealand. University campuses around the country saw sit-ins, occupations and large-scale protest marches against the ongoing and intensified corporatisation of our education. At the University of Auckland, a series of militant student occupations saw two students arrested, and culminated in an occupation of the University Clock Tower that prompted the mobilisation of over fifty police officers.

Here at Victoria, sit-ins and occupations have been revived. Readers may have seen or visited the peaceful ‘Box City’ occupation of the Murphy overbridge last year. Students here have had their own experiences with repression also. Scenes of VUW Campus Care security guards brutalising students at a 200-strong protest in the administration building last year can be found on YouTube.

New Zealand students are angry. We pay some of the highest fees in the world, the quality of our education continues to be degraded, and we are excluded from any involvement in university governance or decision-making. All of this is part of a global trend towards greater corporatisation of higher education. Running universities like corporations means several things. It means transferring the cost of education from the state to students by burdening us with astronomical debt. New Zealand has the seventh-most expensive tertiary education in the OECD. That means students here pay more for tertiary education than Chilean students (many of whom spent much of last year being tear gassed and water cannoned in their fight for free education).

Corporatisation also means cost-cutting. In the past four years students here have watched administrators axe their Gender and Women’s Studies department and sack the staff; the Film School go to the guillotine only to be saved by a sustained protest campaign endorsed by Peter Jackson himself; the gutting of SLP funding (which pays for tutorials); several members of staff in the Humanities sacked, including two highly esteemed members of the International Relations faculty last year; the internationally recognised, and only Crime and Justice Research Centre in the country axed; the closure of the Certificate of University Preparation (CUP) course; 29 library staff sacked and the list goes on. At Canterbury, 350 academic and general staff will be sacked over the next three years. All of this is a result of reductions in Government funding and a funding model that pumps money into more popular courses at the expense of those less popular.

And of course, corporatisation means no democracy for students. Appointed bureaucrats, paid handsomely by the state (the Vice Chancellor at Auckland University has a salary pushing $700,000) make decisions regarding our education. The ‘student consultation’ process is a farce, as is meaningful student representation in university governance. Under corporatisation, Government is the board of directors, university administrators are managers, and we are the raw material.

Yet there are students who refuse to be processed as raw material in a factory. Much of the protest activity on campuses around New Zealand last year was coordinated by a new and organic student movement calling itself We Are the University (WATU). Non-hierarchical, politically diverse and action orientated; WATU represents a movement of students tired of life-long debt and increasingly sub-standard education. The idea of free tertiary education sounds utopian to some. In fact, it existed here until 1989, and continues to exist at hundreds of the most prestigious universities around the world. New Zealand even has a free polytechnic, the Southern Institute of Technology, that ranks relatively high on the scale of quality tertiary providers nationally. All over the world, in countries where governments and bureaucracies are forcing people to pay exorbitant amounts of money for education, there are students fighting, sometimes dying, for free education.

In 2012, the struggle against corporatisation and for free education will continue here at Victoria, and the seeds of a national student movement continue to germinate. For more information or to become involved, go to wearetheuniversity.org.nz or search We Are the University (wgtn) on Facebook.

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  1. Skeptic says:

    It is interesting to see that students are complaining about standards being degraded. However, there are no real specifics here which might be considered. Perhaps some explanation of which standards are being degraded and how they are being degraded might enlighten readers?

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