Fightback Conference 2015: Transforming Tertiary Education (audio + text)

how much did you pay for your education

Session from Fightback Conference 2015.

A look at tertiary education, capitalism and resistance. What is the purpose of education? What needs to change? How can we get there?

Sandra Grey, Tertiary Education Union President
Ian Anderson, VUW student and communist

Trigger warning: Contains mentions of depression and suicidal ideation.


Text of Ian’s contribution:

Since Sandra’s speaking as a unionist and a professor, I thought it might be useful to focus on the role of students, in the university and society more broadly.

Just to give a bit of background, I’ve studied on and off at Victoria University since 2006. I joined Fightback on campus, the socialist group which is hosting this conference. Also over that time, one of my majors was threatened with closure, and another was cut entirely, under the neoliberal funding model introduced by the last Labour government. I’ve completed a BA Honours, and I’m moving onto Masters.

So, I am one of the dreaded long-term Humanities students, all going according to plan I’ll be at university til death do us part. This talk will draw from my experiences on and off campus, aswell as wider research and analysis.

Today I’d like to talk about how we might view students in relation to radical transformation more broadly. To start with, ‘student’ is quite a generalised term. It doesn’t specify gender, race, class, or even educational attainment. For the purposes of this talk, ‘student’ will refer largely to university students in Aotearoa / New Zealand, though sometimes to a more general archetype of the university student in modern history.

So if we’re talking about university students, it might first help to outline what purpose the university serves. First of all I’d like to address one common myth. The notion of the university as the critic and conscience of society, a sanctified space, a ring-fence around critical thought. Although I understand the tactic of using powerful myths against the powerful, left-wing sanctification of universities is also misleading and dangerous in some respects.

If we seek radical social transformation, that means there are no sanctified spaces for critical thought. A shoe factory, a McDonald’s outlet, a corporate office, a WINZ branch must all be spaces for critical thought and action, there are no special sanctified spaces.

That said, for radicals on campus, it’s worth investigating what leeway does exist, and how we might use that leeway in supporting wider transformation. In a way the advantages of universities for radical organising are more straightforward; they’re large worksites with lots of young people. So in Wellington, VUW and the hospital are two of the largest single worksites.

Universities have been described as knowledge factories. So if universities are factories, should we consider students as workers? I’d like to discuss four main accounts of studenthood; students as workers, students as bludgers, students as future managers, and at the risk of tautology, students as students. I’ll then discuss possibilities for radical student action.

Students as workers

This account has some appeal for marxists, partly because the majority of students are workers. A 2014 NZUSA survey found that:

  • 63% of students are in some form of regular paid work (down from 90% in 2007).

  • The average number of weeks a fulltime student works has increased from 21 to 25 weeks since 2010.

  • The average number of hours worked has increased from 12 to 14.

  • The hourly rate students are receiving has increased just 50 cents in four years.

So in summary, less students are working then before, but students are working longer hours, for poverty wages. In my own experience, the longest paid job I’ve ever had was frying chicken, and this experience of short-term service work anecdotally seems like a pretty common student experience.

If we think of students as workers, in relation to the rest of the workforce, it probably makes the most sense to see us an underemployed reserve army. Like reserves in a sports team, a reserve army of labour can be deployed when needed. The capitalist class uses this threat of replacement to drive down conditions.

Low wage casualised jobs and poorly maintained flats are often described as transitional steps for students. Whether or not this justifies students’ living conditions, it ignores that most people living in these conditions are not students.

So, because students in principle will take any job and any flat, we become an excuse for poor conditions generally. One way to address this is to organise students as workers, through workers’ organisations, but it’s probably also worth dealing with the student dimension atleast ideologically, since it’s used to undermine the class as a whole.

Students as bludgers

Like any reserve army, students are cast as bludgers. Although the demonisation isn’t remotely as sharp as that faced by beneficiaries, particularly brown beneficiaries and solo mothers, students still catch some flak for being unproductive and wasteful. Discussing expat graduates who refuse to pay their Student Loans, Herald columnist Kerre McIvor argued:

Those who are refusing to repay their loans are bludgers, pure and simple, and I see no reason why they shouldn’t be treated the same as any other bludger.”

So, just as those on welfare must be rigorously assessed and punished, students should face the same treatment. These attitudes concerning productivity and laziness, reward and punishment, are often internalised, so to quote a piece posted on US website Ritual Mag:

“University life becomes a daily stream of anxiety, depression, suicidal feelings, alienation, and other forms of discontent. However, often this discontent is not recognized as a symptom of being a student but instead is viewed masochistically as not “studying” or “working” enough. A student is simply supposed to appreciate the privilege of studying in a University.”

In keeping with a reductive view of class politics, some marxists join in on this student-bashing. One view holds that, because study is paid through working-class exploitation, in other words through taxes on income, students must earn the right to free education by supporting workers’ struggles.

This argument contains some interesting assumptions. Hospitals are also paid for through working-class exploitation. Benefits are paid through working-class exploitation. None of the above take up as much taxes as pensions, at around 50% of social spending. Not many marxists would argue that beneficiaries, hospital patients, or even pensioners should only be supported if they actively fight for the rest of the class. The assumption then is that, unlike beneficiaries, hospital patients, and pensioners, students are not part of the working class.

Though it’s definitely true that students must stand with all oppressed and exploited, this critique leads us back to asking what university education is for. We may, for example, see university as a training ground for future managers.

Students as future managers

The current National government has a view in line with neoliberal logic; education is at worst a needless expense, at best a commodity, which tertiary consumers buy to gain competitive advantage in the job market. This allows for all sorts of firm quantitative measures, and I’m going to focus on one in particular.

In 2013, the National government released a study entitled Moving on up: What young people earn after their tertiary education. This compared the earning potential of a number of tertiary degrees. Minister of Education Stephen Joyce explained:

What I think it will do is you will see a move away from fine arts and performing arts in to a stronger demand for more career-oriented areas.”

So this is a fairly explicit articulation of why students supposedly study; to further their careers. The study found that five years after finishing study, the median annual earning of young people who complete a bachelors degree is 53% above the national median earning. Of course, as mentioned by VUWSA and others at the time, the report doesn’t mention the debt students face.

Ranking courses individually, a bachelors degree in Health was the highest earning, with a median annual earning of over $60k five years after study. The top five also included Engineering, Information Technology, Management and Commerce, and Architecture, all earning an average of more than $50k per year.

Unsurprisingly, at the bottom of the spectrum were Arts graduates, earning around $42k a year. This is still over the national average, which is around $35k.

While it’s not surprising, based on stereotypes, that Arts students are at the bottom of the graduate earnings list, it may help explain the apparent correlation between Arts students and involvement in radical politics. You could argue it’s more in the interests of Arts students, who expect to earn less, to see a society in which people generally earn more. You could also say that this is a crude economist argument and correlation is not causality. I imagine some Arts students would say their decisions have nothing to do with economic incentives, and we can take or leave that claim.

Income doesn’t tell you everything about class, so the numbers don’t necessarily confirm the ‘students as future managers’ thesis. Comfortable earnings might be a sign you’re an electrician, an IT worker, a middle-tier civil servant, or a business owner. These figures also mask further disparities, for example between men and women who graduate, or Maori, Pacific and Pakeha graduates.

However, the figures do indicate that overall, universities remain a space of social mobility. This is both more and less true under neoliberalism, which has seen an expansion of access to university, and a generation likely to earn less than our parents. For some, universities may operate as a space of upward social mobility, for others they may operate as a space of downward social mobility, or class tourism.

Students as students

I suggest that rather than trying to fix students in relation to production – as capitalists, as workers, as unemployed workers – we should see students as students. This might sound like a needless tautology, ‘a rose is a rose is a rose,’ but I think it allows us to break from polarised, dichotomous class conceptions of studenthood. Students are often workers, often unemployed, often potential capitalists, and in general studenthood is a transitional space, a space between class positions, enabled largely by the state.

If we see studenthood as a transitory space, something contingent rather than fixed, we might stop asking “what are students,” and instead we might ask, “What do they stand for? What do they stand against? Who do they stand with?”

Radical minority

If we ask what students stand for, we can immediately see internal contradictions. Students are generally socially liberal. My own students’ association VUWSA recently endorsed both marriage equality and the right to abortion by popular vote at General Meetings. When it comes to fundamental socio-economic transformation, or militant tactics, the outlook is more divided.

Any attempt to apply critical thinking outside the confines of a classroom or an essay is not only punished by the university administration and the state, but scorned by more conservative or liberal students. This is particularly obvious in the current period, however there was never a heyday when all students were radical. A Salient poll during the 1981 Springbok tour, which saw the student movement taking a leading role against apartheid tours, found students split about 50-50 on the anti-tour movement.

Organisational form

So if a radical student minority – with emphasis on the minority – emerges historically, what organisational form might this radical minority take? Looking over recent years at Vic, after the introduction of Voluntary Student Membership (VSM), there’s a few formal groups for politically engaged students.

There are the Students’ Associations, which are often compared with workers’ unions. This comparison is true to a point, and I’d say any radical on campus should join their Students Association. But there’s a fundamental difference between most contemporary workers’ unions and Students Associations under VSM; whereas Students Associations are financially dependant on the university, unions are financially dependant on their members.

Although many unions are conservative and bureaucratic, there is more capacity for independent class action in a workers’ union than a Students Association. There are a lot of sincere people doing good work in Students Associations, but under VSM, they’re basically the equivalent of a bosses’ union. Any attempt to develop transformative politics on campus requires independent organising, that isn’t beholden to university funding.

Affiliated to Students Associations, you also have political clubs – parliamentary party wings, so Young National has been pretty active in recent years, Young Labour in previous years. You have non-parliamentary political or activist groups – socialist groups, NGOs like Amnesty International. You have sectoral groups affiliated to the Students Association – the Women’s Group, UniQ which provides a space for queers on campus. There are what might be called non-political clubs; games clubs or sports clubs. These various groups may cycle through people, but generally remain relatively continuous. Most of these groups contain currents that would be significant in any radical upsurge.

In contrast, recent years have seen short-term, fluctuating student groups organised on a broadly anti-neoliberal platform; historically the Education Action Group, or more recently We Are The University (or WATU) which sprung up in 2011, and last year Reclaim Vic. These short-term formations are often more willing to take militant action for students’ interests, for example occupying management buildings.

I’d suggest a large part of getting radical politics right is mediating this tension between short-term outbursts of struggle, which in a healthy moment exceed formally existing groups, and longer-term organisation, so you don’t just have valiant losses. Marxist groups like Fightback aim to act as a kind of memory of the class.

Students are generally more able to take risks than tertiary staff, and this is a strength. I’ll give an example from my own experience, apologies to anyone implicated in the story. The university planned to slash a department. Students circulated a statement with prominent names supporting the department, and escalated to occupying a management building. This attention temporarily averted the closure of the department, however management gradually whittled away at the department over the next couple of years, intimidating staff and cutting resources. To be frank, when I heard a leading student organiser say that they were talking to staff and had decided to keep opposition to submissions, I knew we were fucked. Submissions on their own would not stop management’s plans. The department was finally killed that year.

This is a negative example, and I’ve certainly seen more positive examples of staff coming in behind student organising. It’s actually my impression that in a period where the Students Associations are becoming more conservative, the Tertiary Education Union is heading to the left, with its move to represent General Staff not just academic staff, taking up the Living Wage campaign – which again is more relevant to General Staff, and actively supporting what little remains of a radical student movement.

At the same time, I think we need to be very conscious that university staff are under constant scrutiny, and micro-management of resistance can often be more effective than direct repression. It makes sense for students and staff to organise independently, taking joint action and separate action as necessary.


The most powerful student upsurges – Paris in May ’68, Tiananmen Square in 1989 – were powerful partly because the most militant sections of the workers’ and students movements joined forces. The role of workers’ organisations in these struggles is often forgotten.

As radical students then, we aim to join a broader historic bloc. We aim to forge alliances on the basis of common goals, not just our identity as students. We might say that all struggles are student struggles, atleast in principle.

At the same time, radical students need to kill the missionary in our heads. An underlying missionary logic – the notion of radical students and intellectuals ‘saving’ the oppressed – was used in the past to justify failed ‘turns to industry,’ where graduates who might normally go into white collar work went to organise in factories.

There’s an old Marx line that it’s “essential to educate the educator,” and Mandel added that this line means exactly what it says. This applies as much to students as paid teachers, often when students discover radical ideas for the first time they can become arrogant and alienating. This heady moment can be valuable, but needs to be brought back to earth. Rather than acting on behalf of the oppressed, acting for others, students need to emancipate ourselves, so we can effectively stand in solidarity with others.

So, some kind of programme for the university is needed. I don’t think radical students should have any misconceptions about representing all students, but we need a broad accessible programme that addresses people’s needs. You shouldn’t need to read Marx to gain admission, but it’s also not a politics-free or value-neutral zone.

Last year Reclaim Vic endorsed the following programme. We demanded:

  • Fully funded public education

  • A Universal Student Allowance, cancellation of all existing student debt

  • Bridging courses and support for people entering tertiary education

  • A Living Wage for all staff

  • Student and staff representation in planning education policy, education run by students and staff

  • A move away from funding purely targeted towards marketable research, towards funding all socially valuable forms of education and research.

I don’t think demands should be limited to just these, however I think a commitment to fighting for public, democratically run education should be the minimum basis for political unity on campus. I’d like to open the floor to discussion of what might be the next be next steps in executing these sorts of ideas.

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