Education in Crisis

Stop the Cuts - John Tregonning

Photo Credit: John Tregonning


After 30 years of neoliberal cuts and running education like a business, the chickens have come home to roost. Secondary and tertiary students are looking around wondering whether their courses will be offered next year, or whether they will have a teacher or lecturer in front of their classroom or lecture theatre. The constant pressures of the past few years, adapting to lockdowns and remote learning, as well as curriculum changes, has resulted in a stressed and overworked labour force.  The public education system faces its biggest challenge since it became a mass- based system. In secondary and tertiary education the Ministry of Education is demanding pay cuts and mass redundancies respectively. This article tries to make sense of the tactical and strategic issues facing staff and student resistance through their unions and anti-cuts campaigns.

Post Primary Teaching Association

Secondary Education is in the most protracted employment dispute since 2002. Teachers have made a reasonable demand, to peg pay rises to inflation over the term of their next contract. A year-and-a-half of failed negotiations have passed with the government offering 11 to 14 percent over the next three years. By the end of that contract, the term would cover four-and-a-half years, equating to pay going up by 2.4 percent per year, far below inflation. As a result the Union is in an arbitration process by which three independent arbiters will make a recommendation. Their report is due at the start of August. The Union’s claim is essentially minimal: meet inflation, support Māori Kaiako and provide for more pastoral support for students.

The context to all this is a massive increase in workload and stress for teachers across the secondary education sphere. Recovering from COVID lockdowns, adapting to “hybrid learning” and developing an entirely new curriculum has left the sector drained. As teachers leave the profession in droves, replacements by new graduates with student loans will in effect live on a salary less than the minimum wage. A PPTA Staffing Survey shows that just over 40 percent of those graduates will leave the profession within five years.

The settling of this dispute in favour of the Union claim will not fix the system, or make the job of secondary teaching tolerable; it would only keep the system on life support. In order to solve the structural problems within education it is necessary to look beyond restoring wages to meet the cost of living.

Once the arbitration report comes back the PPTA will ballot its members on whether to accept the recommendations. If teachers reject the recommendations they will have to quickly begin large-scale industrial action in order to force some movement before the general election. Those old enough to remember the struggle for a collective agreement in 2002 will remember that wildcat strikes were key to winning that campaign.  

If there is no settlement until after the election teachers will face the horrying possibility of bargaining with a National/ACT government. Their vision of education is a dire one: charter schools, performance pay and a curriculum regime that doesn’t respect teachers’ expertise. If the struggle to keep up with the cost of living continues, visible solidarity of students, parents and teachers together will be vital.

Tertiary Education Union

Up to a thousand jobs could be cut from tertiary education before the end of this year. It’s a startling figure, and shows just what is at stake for workers in education, students, and the wider community. This follows on from hundreds of losses through the COVID period, voluntary redundancies, and cutbacks across the universities in the 2010s. Hundreds of jobs are threatened at Otago, Victoria and Te Pūkenga, the new merged national polytechnic. Cuts are coming at Waikato. Hundreds more have been announced at Massey. So the stakes matter for everyone who wants a tertiary education system that offers a range of subjects and good staffing for students to learn across sciences, business and the humanities. It’s clear that a class struggle is been waged against us: our jobs, and our courses, are under threat.

Labour came to power in 2017 with a commitment to expanding apprenticeship programmes and ending the competition and empire-building (and collapsing) that was going on in the polytechnic sector. The commitment was part of Labour’s view of what capital needed: more training, more skilled workers in certain areas, more certainty around training providers. What role universities would play in Labour’s vision was never clear after the fees-free policy was triumphed, and then quietly shelved. Chris Hipkins, as Education Minister, barely mentioned universities; Jan Tinetti continued this neglect until recently. Budget 2023, as Brian Roper showed, actually took money away from universities.

When Otago and Victoria announced big cuts as prompted by government underfunding, it made good sense to follow the Vice-Chancellors’ statements. They were pointing to real problems: below-inflation funding across successive governments; a funding model that doesn’t support long-term planning by universities; unequal funding across subjects (discouraging Humanities and Arts in particular). The Open Letter signed by these Vice-Chancellors, the Tertiary Education Union branches and student leaders at Otago and VUW set all this out. We are proud of the campaign that was generated around these demands, and proud to have been centrally involved. And it got results. Labour re-allocated $128m it had taken away from the universities and committed, albeit after the election, to review the broken funding model. None of this would have happened without campaigning by staff and students in unison. It was a political victory, if a small one.

What happens next? This is where the tactical and strategic view gets more complicated. Labour have bought themselves a short-term political win by being seen to do something while committing, in reality, to very little: under-funded universities are still underfunded, and the deficits are still there. Their move has shown up wider divisions in the ruling class too. If Labour have ruled the universities with a generally neglectful attitude, National is clear that it wants to go back to what it sees as the good old days of an “international student industry” (Christopher Luxon’s words) and universities as much more closely linked to the needs of business. Steven Joyce, when he was Education Minister under Key/English in the 2010s, carefully arranged reforms that were too small to catch the attention of the wider public but were, cumulatively, significant attacks on public education: freezing funding to make critical subjects in Arts and Humanities less attractive compared to STEM; reducing staff, student and community voices on University Councils in favour of business and government; and tying university finances much more to chasing international student markets as money-making concerns rather than as groups of learners looking for education in community. National are ready to go back to more of the same.

What of the Vice-Chancellors? They too are, along with many members of University Councils, part of the ruling class. Vice-Chancellors are paid salaries between half a million and Seven Hundred Thousand dollars annually and are connected through social, institutional and networked links to the wider ruling class. Vice-Chancellors and senior managements in universities are trying to shape New Zealand capitalism too. At the moment they are, for the first time in a while, remarkably split. Some, such as at Otago and Victoria, are showing a willingness to work with student and staff groups to campaign for greater funding. How long that can last is another question, but it is a remarkable development. Others, such as at Waikato, are blocking openly with the National Party. Others again, such as at Massey, are pushing ahead ostentatiously with cuts agendas just as Labour announces more funding. The message seems clear: stay away from our fiefdoms.

How should we respond? The campaign through April to June was primarily political, mobilising staff and students in protest to pressure the government and to make tertiary education a national issue. That has had some success. What comes next is more complex. A political campaign, focusing on ongoing government underfunding and making a case for public education as a public good, is still vital and can still be built. But the sharp end of decisions on redundancies are coming for staff, following local timetables, thus difficult to coordinate responses. Strike action to defend jobs is an obvious, and important, socialist demand. But this is a sector without strong traditions of industrial action and rank-and-file organizing. Tertiary education saw its first strikes in twenty years last year. So, how do we get from where we are to where we need to be? Some of the campaigning these past months has laid down links within and between universities that we can strengthen. How the debates in the ruling class play out will shape the terrain too, as will the general election. Their uncertainty is a chance for our arguments to shape the public debate. How we defend jobs and make opposition to education cuts part of wider consciousness amongst students and workers is a pressing issue we need to discuss and debate.

One thing is clear. The return of student protest, after many years of quiet on the campus, has made all of these questions ask-able again. Students, after the years of pinched educational opportunities through COVID and the relentless grind of cost-of-living and rent stresses, are resisting cuts to their education in loud and conspicuous ways that have thrown up organising coalitions and ongoing activist work on campuses of a kind we have not seen in a long time. This energy is an inspiration for staff to continue resisting, and points a way forward for the coming months.