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Time for a new fees fightback
From Socialist Review Aotearoa New
angry crowd of protesters greeted the Associate Education Minister Steve
Maharey at Victoria in late May after news Labour was planning massive fee
hikes for tertiary students. This protest – along with other recent ones
in Christchurch and Dunedin – are significant not just because they’re
the first major actions against attacks on tertiary education for several
years, but that they’re also aimed at a Labour Government.
Although nominal fees have always been charged, it was the Fourth Labour Government that introduced higher fees and the loans scheme in 1990. At that time, there was a flat fee of $1300 though with many exceptions for those from low income families, for example.
Labour and then National initially adopted a reasonably clever strategy – first introducing fees but with various exemptions, then imposing much higher fees on the most poorly organised groups of students – international students (who had been paying full fees for some time) then Dental and Health Science students.
in 1993 they made a big mistake – an attempt to impose roughly 30
percent across the board fee increases sparked big angry protests at many
campuses. At Otago, on September 28, a mob of police in full riot gear
stormed out of the Registry building and savagely beat up a group of
students sitting on the steps waiting for news of fellow students arrested
at a demonstration earlier in the day.
This attempt at repression backfired badly, and 1994 saw absolutely massive demonstrations against fees and the loans scheme. Badly frightened, the National Government commissioned the Todd Report to try and give the fee increases some air of legitimacy.
with this, the universities, in particular Otago, had developed much more
sophisticated tactics for dealing with the protest movement by the
mid-90s. Instead of sending in the riot squad, university administrations
made a pretence of listening to students’ concerns, setting up useless
student-management committees and trying to place the blame for fee
increases solely on the government.
as the economic crisis that began in the 1970s bit deeper, rulers in New
Zealand (and elsewhere) attacked living standards through benefit cuts,
“user pays” and, of course, making students pay to gain the skills
needed by the system. It’s important then to understand that fees are
part of a much bigger attack, and fighting them involves fighting the
whole neoliberal agenda as well.
the majority of student leaders in the 1990s failed to make this
connection. For most of that decade we were told by them to put our faith
in university management and vote for an “education-friendly”
government. Well, we’ve got our “education-friendly” government all
right – and it’s about to impose a fee increase
as big as the total yearly fees it introduced in 1990!
key to winning this time lies in recognising that our rulers (whether
“education-friendly” or not) and the university bosses are not our
friends, that we will have to have bigger, more militant and coordinated
protests involving staff-student strikes and occupations, and most
importantly, that we need to link up with workers, beneficiaries, Mäori
and all the other victims of the last 19 years.
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