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Time for a new fees fightback

From Socialist Review Aotearoa New Zealand
Issue 15 (Winter 2003)

An 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.

But 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.

Coupled 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.


Why fees?
After World War II the universities expanded enormously as the post-war economic boom demanded skilled technicians, administrators, teachers and scientists. Throughout the boom, the state was willing to meet most of the cost of tertiary education because big surpluses gave it room to manoeuvre, just as it was able to grant workers concessions in terms of social welfare and a public health system.

But 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.

Unfortunately 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!

The 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.
Andrew Cooper

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