Tertiary education for the rich, not the poor

While University funding has been trending downwards per student since the 70’s, cuts have started to ramp up since the election of the current National government in 2008. The recently unveiled budget contained an actual cut to the tertiary education budget, when recently the budget has seen below-inflation increases. Down from $4 billion to $3.9 billion. Funding is not expected to reach 2009 levels until 2016 and by then inflation will have undermined the value of that funding in real terms. Since 2008 the number of university students has increased by 5,000 but funding has decreased by $500 million after inflation. The Universities have survived to an extent by cutting programmes and applying wider cuts to funding levels. The point is being reached where the easier cuts to back-room funding, tutors etc. will not make the savings required at the lower funding levels, redundancies and harsher cuts as seen at Canterbury will become the norm across the country.

Alongside the cuts to general funding pools for the university. The government has been making loans and allowances harder to access. The 10% repayment rate on income over $19,084 has been increased to 12%, in Australia repayments start at 4% on and income of $44,912 and slowly rises to 8% for $83,408 and above.

Student Allowances are becoming increasingly inaccessible

The Student Allowance has been difficult to access for most students for a while now. The parental income threshold was $26,832 in 1992 ($42,049 in 2011 dollars). This current threshold sits at $55,027.96. This is less than the income of two people on the minimum wage. The threshold tapers out at $90,554.74 and if a student’s parents are earning below this they can expect to get around $5 a week in allowance (the full allowance is $244.96 a week). This freezing of the parental income threshold is expected to save the government $12.662m a year. With the maximum amount that can be borrowed under the student loan scheme being $172.50 per week, this leaves a potential gap of $72.46 for the student to make-up. According to the New Zealand Union of Students Associations the median outlay on weekly expenses for a student in 2010 was food ($50), transport ($30), entertainment ($30), personal items ($10), general bills ($20) and rent ($115) a sum total of $255 a week in expenses. Only 65% of students were able to find casual or regular work compared to 90% in 2007. The sum total of these cuts is to make university education unattainable for poor working class students.

Most of these cuts are seen to be affecting younger students (18-24) yet on the other end of the scale in the past year we have seen the removal of student loans for living and course costs for people aged over 55, as well as taking away access for part-time students to the $1000 available to borrow as course related costs.

A major change was the removal of access to Student Allowances for those studying postgraduate studies above honours level. The Student Allowance has not parental thresholds for those who are 24 years or older. This is tied into comments by Tertiary Education minister Steven Joyce who said in an interview with Radio New Zealand that the government would be moving funding from humanities and commerce towards the sciences. Government and Universities will use scholarships and funding to force students towards the sciences or leave them to support themselves if they persevere in the arts. Treasury expect this to save $32.986m yearly.

Picture from VUW website: “critic and conscience” mythology

Contradiction within the Education Act

Under the Education Act Universities are required to accept the role of “a critic and conscience of society” (Education Act 1989, Section 162(4)(a)(v)). If we take “critic” to mean a person who judges, evaluates, or criticizes, conscience to mean a source of moral or ethical judgment or pronouncement and society to mean the totality of social relationships among humans, then we have a requirement on academic members of the University to evaluate or critique what is wrong or right amongst layers of society.

Yet you have Joyce putting forward the following perspective:

“…I want to see funding linked to employment outcomes, not just internal benchmarks. This will send a strong signal to students about which qualifications and which institutions offer the best career prospects – and that’s what tertiary education has got to be about.”

The requirement to hold a critical mirror to the rest of society clashes with the legal requirement as critic and conscience of society. The reality of tying the direction of the University to the short term needs of the market/industry can already be seen in the provision of Information Technology students, which follows a roughly five year cycle of not enough students being trained in IT, a furious rush to train more students in a short period of time, an over supply of students which leads to cuts and collapses of training institutes which then leads to not enough students being trained again. The potential future of a university that is more tightly led by the market (let’s not imagine that there was a time when the role of university was not to train future workers, it is just a question of how tightly controlled the university is by short-term imperatives) is many more violent fluctuations in the demand and supply of students as the needs of the market contradict and invert on themselves. Recently there has been a large push for greater numbers of qualified Early Childhood Education teachers. As the some of the first trainees of this push for numbers graduated, they found the market conditions had changed and now found themselves part of the surplus, consigned to find work in other industries. This market flexibility ultimately hurts workers. They pay greater amounts for their training for no guarantee of employment afterwards. Only a student loan (averaging $12,000 according to NZUSA) and three years of training and potentially a period on the unemployment benefit.

While the outlines provided within the Education Act are laudable. The reality is that they are abstracted window dressings, sounding fine in principle, but in practice utterly subordinate to a growing control of the short term whims of industry bodies and the government.


Development of struggle on campus

Resistance to these policies springs up organically. Too many people are being negatively affected by these changes, not to be angry/outraged/upset at what is going on. The ability for students to organise collectively against these attacks is hamstrung by the fact that the average student spends 2 1/2-3 years at university and then moves on (the situation at polytechs can be the order of months) taking their experiences and knowledge with them. In the last decade, various universities have learnt to wait out upsurges in struggle and continue on with their plans once the organised/conscious students have gone. Some of the bureaucrats have been going about their work for decades. They have the advantage of being employed full-time to engage in their work, with the benefits of multi-million dollar budgets and the ability to plan further ahead than the coming six months.

An attempt to grapple with this dynamic has been seen in the creation of the nationwide We Are The University (WATU) movement. Developed out of relatively spontaneous struggles against the ongoing cuts primarily at Victoria University and Auckland University, with stirrings also at Christchurch and Waikato Universities. A loose national structure has developed around the need to build beyond the semi-regular waves of spontaneous organising and develop embryonic structures of consciousness needed to keep the pressure on the administration as well as build an alternative political formation to challenge the legitimacy of the university administration.

The challenge facing WATUs are twofold, initially setting up one and getting enough members active to develop an initial momentum and existence. Making headway/growing and surviving are further challenges that rise up and need to be engaged with. A crisis of identity exists within the two major WATUs currently. What do they stand for? How do they progress a political perspective in the face of apparent apathy/hostility? How do radicals/activists relate to a wider layer of apolitical students? How do they relate to the NGO-type groups that exist with such limited horizons and a fierce hostility towards any politics that sits outside of the limited space existing within the sphere of parliamentary politics?

Within this dynamic it is the organised radicals who are outed as “disruptive” and “polarising” within the “movement”, holding back the ability of these protests to gain any momentum or be taken “seriously”. The dividing lines concerning this debate are often over whether “student issues” are limited and narrowed to those directly connected to students and/or campus or to the “university” and the “student” being part of a wider conception of knowledge, critical debate as being an integral part of society, and wider society as being a integral part of the university in turn.

Joel Cosgrove

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