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Student rep clearly unaware of Salient’s theme this week
Victoria University’s governing body, the University Council, has voted to raise domestic fees for both undergraduate and postgraduate students by 3 per cent.
Following the 2015 Budget, New Zealand universities are only allowed to raise domestic tuition fees by a maximum of 3 per cent annually, down from the previous 4 per cent cap. This cap does not apply for international student fees.
As Council member Ian McKinnon noted in session, “this is never an easy meeting” as Council members are charged with maintaining the quality of Victoria “and the costs associated with it”.
Both student representatives on Council—VUWSA President Rick Zwaan and elected rep Stella Blake-Kelly—were highly critical of the fee-setting process and called for measures that would allow students to see what bang they were getting from their proverbial buck.
Zwaan said that only 7 per cent of students surveyed by VUWSA felt that academic quality at Victoria was increasing year after year.
Fee rises were also criticised for adding to the ever-increasing cost of student debt. Zwaan claimed that “in about thirty years’ time the cost of tuition will have doubled” should tuition costs continue to rise at this rate every year.
Council members also questioned the lack of measurements in place for monitoring academic quality, and for ensuring that a focus on students and staff was not lost in what academic representative Dolores Janiewski called the University’s “constrained economic environment”.
Echoing Janiewski’s calls, Zwaan claimed “we still don’t have a comprehensive measure of academic quality for our core business of teaching and learning” while suggesting that Victoria should take “proactive lead on researching the effect of tertiary funding policies” which most Council members identified as being deeply flawed.
Zwaan and Blake-Kelly were vehement in their assertions that there was no clear justification as to how fee increases would benefit students directly.
In her speech to Council, Blake-Kelly pointed out that fee-setting forced students to wonder “what they’re paying, or rather borrowing, for”.
Both Blake-Kelly and Zwaan, along with some academics, called for a more collaborative approach to fee-setting, similar to the current process used for setting Vic’s Student Services Levy.
“I’d love to be able to head away and tell students that I’m confident that their money is being used well, here’s what it’s used for and this is where we got to with the increase… students are a shareholder and client so we should set fees in partnership with them,” Zwan said.
However, Vice-Chancellor Grant Guilford insisted that fee increases did directly translate into gains for students by paying for high quality staff, offsetting the depreciating value of facilities at the University, and scholarships/financial support, among others.
“There is a private good to be balanced with a public good… and we also have to recall that the taxpayer of New Zealand is also funding not only education but also our health system, our roads etc,” Guilford claimed.
As Blake-Kelly claimed, “user-pays education” has created “completely different expectations, completely different experiences and completely different pressures to what pretty much everyone in this room has had” for students today.
Following the Council’s fee-setting meeting VUWSA tweeted that despite her objections, Blake-Kelly had voting for the fee rise at the meeting.
VUWSA Equity Officer Chennoah Walford then took to Overheard@Vic to question Blake-Kelly for voting in favour of the fee rises in her position as student representative.
Students were quick chastise Blake-Kelly’s actions, claiming she was “probably a National voter” and accusing her of failing to “care about how tough it is for students” and sticking “the knife into all of our backs”.
Blake-Kelly defended her decision to vote in favour of fee increases, noting that increasing competition from developing countries meant the University’s costs are climbing “at a rate well above inflation”.
“In voting against increasing tuition fees, you are asking the university to do more with less,” she told Salient. “You provide no choice for management but to engage in staffing redundancies and fewer tutorials, and you impact the quality of current and future students’ education.
“You shouldn’t vote against tuition fee increases without offering a viable alternative.”
Nonetheless, Blake-Kelly told Salient she was “not surprised by the initial reaction” on social media.
“If we want a better education system we need more people to engage in debate, but it needs to be informed,” Blake-Kelly said. “Resorting to personal attacks by falsely dismissing me as a ‘rich kid’ says more about the depth of their thinking than it does about me.”
Blake-Kelly’s full statement can be read here.
The System is Broke
While every Council member who spoke acknowledged the economic reality in which the University operated, most criticised the fixed-increase fee setting method that the University was bound by.
Indeed, none of the attendees disagreed with the view that Victoria was functioning under an increasingly limited Government Budget or that the value of its degrees are tied to its reputation and research, both of which cost money.
However, several comments criticised the current fee-setting system both in terms of percentage limits and the inevitability of annual fee increases.
Janiewski argued that the current fee-setting system meant that funding for some courses had decreased in real terms since 2012, and that rather than guaranteeing an increase in quality or teaching, the university was “often just treading water” financially.
The feelings of many members and students was summed up by Blake-Kelly who claimed, “every year the [fee setting] process has remained formulaic and frustrating. Formulaic as the Governmental policy setting incentivises only one outcome, frustrating as every year it breeds resentment in the eyes of our students”.
More than this, the measurements by which fee-increases were justified were also criticised. McKinnon noted that as a market measure the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was “not really relevant to the increasing costs that the university faces”.