Student Activism Revival

An exciting development of 2023 has been the return of university student protest, with a wave of protests erupting onto campuses across Aotearoa in response to proposed staff and course cuts. While we have seen outbreaks of student discontent on campus in recent years, such as the “New University” protests sparked by specialist library closures at University of Auckland in 2018, this recent wave of protests stands out in its scope, drawing in large numbers of students across multiple universities. It began in late April at Otago University, where students and staff came together to protest the “several hundred job cuts” proposed by the university. With an eye to Otago, students launched a similar campaign in Wellington when significant staff and course cuts were threatened at Victoria University in late May. From there the movement spread to Massey University’s Wellington and Palmerston North campuses. Protest has now spread to Massey’s Albany campus in Auckland, with the announcements of massive cuts to the engineering school in October. While it has not halted cuts entirely, this movement has struck blows against the callousness of university management, exposed the failures of the outgoing Labour government, and won important (if partial) victories such as the preservation of Theatre at Victoria University. It has also drawn a new generation of students into political activity, bringing political struggle to campuses that have been depoliticised for decades. 

Student anger breaks out

The announcement of staff and course cuts was the spark that set off these protests. But background to them is the progressive immiseration of student life. A recent survey conducted by the Green Party and student associations found that large numbers of students are living in poverty, with two thirds of those surveyed reporting that they regularly did not have enough money to pay for basic necessities such as food, clothing and healthcare. Financial support for students as it stands is a joke. The strict criteria of the current allowance scheme means that only 12 percent of students are receiving an allowance. And what they receive is not enough to cover their costs. With the rising cost of living and skyrocketing rents, increasing numbers of students are having to work part or full time on top of study. This reality is not reflected in the financial support that students are offered or in universities’ expectations around assessment and workload. It is not surprising, then, that rates of mental illness were extremely high among tertiary students even before the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, and have only climbed since.  

Is it any wonder, then, that enrolment rates are falling and the course completion rate is the lowest it has been since 2014, with one in three students dropping out. This fall in enrolments has been used as an excuse by the university managers who are trying to push through cuts. It was also used by the outgoing Labour government to justify the underfunding that precipitated this crisis. This rhetoric dodges the fact that university management and successive governments bear responsibility for making tertiary study unsustainable or inaccessible for growing numbers of people. It also dodges the fact that cuts to staffing, services and courses will only see enrolments decline further. 

This broader context was not lost on the students organising these anti-cut protests. Speeches at rallies denounced not just the threatened cuts, but also student poverty, over-assessment, and the corporatisation of universities. A leaflet distributed at Massey University’s Open Day in Wellington read:

We are sick of being seen as dollar signs. We are sick of going into massive debt, living in crappy accommodation, and trying to scrape by on tiny allowances, only to be told that the education we were promised won’t be available… because the course have been cut, the teachers have been fired, and face to face learning is being ditched for online courses.

Free tertiary education has been on the mind of many at these protests, with students expressing bitterness at Labour’s broken promise to progressively introduce three years of fee-free tertiary education from 2018 onwards. There have also been demands for greater financial support for students, with calls for the allowance scheme to be scrapped altogether in favour of a universal study wage, as advocated by the Otago and Victoria University student associations. 

The creativity of student protest has been on full display in the past few months. Along with more traditional mass demonstrations, students have organised inventive actions that have kept the spotlight on their cause. In Otago, students in animal masks invaded university council meetings, strewing monopoly money to ease their financial woes. Also in Otago, students occupied a disused room in the Business School, converting it into a collaborative art space. Three protesters were arrested for this action. At Victoria, hundreds of wailing, screaming protesters marched on parliament in a “funeral for tertiary education,” complete with a full-sized casket. Not to be outdone, students at Massey’s Palmerston North campus held a funeral march that culminated in the mock-execution of Fergus (the university’s ram mascot) at the hands of a student dressed as Vice Chancellor Jan Thomas. “This animal is too expensive to keep, I need my salary!” the Jan Thomas impersonator told Massive magazine, shortly after ripping the head off a dummy representing Fergus. 

Arts and Humanities are often the first to be targeted by cuts, and the prominent involvement of Arts students has added to the vibrancy of these protests. At Victoria University the successful #Save VUW Theatre campaign was launched to defend New Zealand’s oldest practical theatre school. Also at Victoria, around one hundred  musicians packed into the hub one lunchtime in July, performing Karl Off and Aretha Franklin to protest the threat of significant cuts to the Music School. At Massey, a student art exhibition called Offcuts presented creative responses to cuts in the education sector, including installations and poetry. The severed head of Fergus was on display, and visitors were encouraged to take a slice of the “cake of knowledge” which screamed in pain when cut.  

The response of university management to these protests has not done anything to alleviate the impression that they care more about their bottom lines than they do about their students and staff. At Victoria, security were filmed pulling down posters in support of staff. At Massey, a security guard actually attempted to trespass two students merely for chalking, along with a staff member who had been observing. The publicity that these incidents received caused both of the universities to back down. Massey quickly attempted to backpedal, claiming that the students had not been trespassed (despite clear video evidence to the contrary). Victoria University issued an apology for the poster incident after it was picked up by the media and the Victoria branch of the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) issued a statement calling their actions “inappropriate and disturbing.” These incidents, of course, pale in comparison to the crackdown on the protesters who staged the occupation of the Business School room at Otago. The university called the police on these protesters, and three were arrested. As Protect Otago Action Group (POAG) said in a statement on the incident: 

Apparently the university property-fetishists consider painting messages of support for staff and students to be “intentional damage” while dogmatic adherence to balance sheets and the butchering of tertiary education is simply what must be done. 

The protesters have been charged with “intentional damage” for painting on the walls of the room (which was unused and set to be renovated), and for the holes which the police drilled into a door in the process of making the arrests. They have been asked to pay an eye-watering $15,000 – a sum which is clearly less about recovering the costs caused by their actions and more about deterring other students from taking part in disruptive protests.

Why are these protests significant?

Firstly, the fact that they happened at all. This is not the first round of cuts to hit universities in recent years; in fact hundreds of jobs have been hacked away at universities across New Zealand since 2020. Mass protest against these attacks has been the exception rather than the rule. The wave of protest in response to this round of cuts demonstrates how protest at one site can inspire and encourage protest at other sites, expanding people’s ideas of what is possible. The actions of Otago students and staff in founding the Protect Otago Action Group inspired students at Victoria University to launch Students Against Cuts (SAC), which in turn inspired those at Massey to launch a similar campaign. The size and scope of these protests has been significant. The initial rally at Otago drew at least five hundred attendees. Along with smaller actions, SAC at Victoria managed to organise mass demonstrations of hundreds of students twice in as many months, not including the strong student turnout for TEU, Save New Zealand Music School and Save VUW Theatre events. Rallies at Massey campuses have been smaller, drawing “only” a couple of hundred, but are still significant considering that very little political activity has taken place on Massey campuses in recent years (notable exceptions being the Thursdays in Black march against rape culture in Palmerston North in 2021, and the protest against a transphobic speaking event in Wellington in 2019). Taken as a whole, this wave of protests has also demonstrated impressive staying power; beginning in April in Otago, it is still going in October with the most recent protests at Massey. 

Importantly, the protests have not limited themselves to an immediate fight against the university management but have also raised broader political demands. When then-Prime Minister Chris Hipkins addressed Otago University students, he was greeted by student and staff protesters who heckled him, demanding to know why he had allowed tertiary education to enter this crisis. The Students Against Cuts campaign that began at Victoria University deliberately raised two demands: “no cuts” and “the government foots the bill.” As well as targeting the university management with protest, students marched on Parliament demanding more funding for universities and a more sustainable funding model. Backed by student protest, the Otago and Victoria University student associations, along with their branches of the TEU, had some success in bringing their Vice Chancellors to the table to put joint pressure on the government, winning concessions in the form of an injection of emergency funding to universities and a promised review of the funding model. 

There have been other political interventions too. When then-Minister of Finance Grant Robertson visited Victoria University just prior to the election, he was greeted by angry students demanding to know why he was not acting on student poverty. Student protesters picketed his office that same week, holding a banner that read: “Only 37% of full-time students get any kind of allowance… The main culprit here is the National Government’s absurd means-testing programme.” These are Robertson’s own words, taken from a speech he made back in 1996 when he was the president of the National Union of Student Associations. The Tertiary Education Commission (TEC), the body in charge of university funding, has also been targeted. When they announced their despicable decision to withdraw another $52m in funding from universities, a snap rally outside their offices included representatives from TEU, Students Against Cuts, and the Massey and Victoria student associations.

The state of student politics

Flaxroots student protests have played an important role dragging the often-sluggish student and staff unions along with them in action. This has been particularly striking at Massey, where it took concerted effort and public criticism from student activists to draw the student association Tira Ahu Pae into action. Scrambling after their recent amalgamation, and weighed down by bureaucratic inertia, Te Tira Ahu Pae was initially slow to respond to the threat of cuts, but thanks to the agitation of students their representatives can now be seen organising student protests and condemning the cuts publicly. At Victoria University and Otago, student protest encouraged staff to be more bold in their opposition to the cuts, to the point of going around TEU leadership. 

Of the student associations, Victoria University Students’ Association (VUWSA) and Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA) have played the most prominent role in the fight against the cuts at the outset, with VUWSA in particular working closely with both SAC and the TEU.  There have been gestures of support from other student associations too. At the time of the funeral protests a message of support was sent from the Canterbury Student Association, an important gesture of solidarity from students at a university which is not currently facing the same attacks. These are bright spots in the otherwise rather bleak landscape of organised student politics. On the national level, the National Union of Student Associations (NZUSA) has been slow to respond to the threat of cuts, and certainly has not been able to take the initiative to launch a campaign against them. Following the lead of student protesters, they have sent messages of solidarity to rallies and have signed open letters and statements condemning the crisis. Student protesters urged them to speak in support of those arrested in Otago, prompting them to release a  “positional paper on student action against staff cuts” which said that “While we do not condone any misuse of university property, we wish to bring to attention that student activism can and does continue to play a role in the life of the tertiary institution, especially at a time when staff cuts are occurring” and emphasised that it is “essential that students and staff are able to uphold and exercise – within respect and reason – their autonomy, academic freedom, and the right to free expression on campuses.” Student activists have expressed frustration at the time which it took for this statement to be released, and the fact that it does not appear to have been widely publicised. 

The weakness of the student political bodies is due to systemic failures, rather than individual ones; the legacy of policies such as Voluntary Student Unionism which saw the independence and resources of student associations greatly reduced. Since this damaging change was introduced in 2011, student associations have been encouraged to behave as service providers rather than fighting student unions. Today the NZUSA is an under-resourced shambles, routinely criticised by their members for inefficiency. Auckland University Students Association is the most recent association to pull out of NZUSA entirely, citing the high cost of levies and the ineffectiveness of the association. Both VUWSA and OUSA gave 12 months’ notice in 2014, but later rejoined following referenda. AUT, Canterbury, Waikato and Otago Polytech Students’ Associations are not members.

In student media, the Massey magazine Massive has been vital, providing students with the information and commentary they have not been getting from the university, or for that matter from the student association. Salient and Critic, the publications of Victoria and Otago, have also provided valuable coverage. They are highlighting the importance of student media at a time when this institution, too, is under attack, struggling with a lack of funding (the student publications are all funded through either their university or their student association). Canta, the magazine of Canterbury University, has announced on social media that they will be closing after 2024, and there are rumours that Nexus of Waikato University will be next. 

Given that this is the wider landscape that student protesters are operating in, it is only more impressive, and more important, that they have been able to mobilise in the way that they have. 

The failures of Labour

Speaking of the wider landscape, this wave of protest has served to expose the extent of Labour’s failures in regard to tertiary education. Labour came to power in 2017 offering students one year free tertiary education and promising to progressively introduce two further years. This promise, like so many others, was dropped, and Labour then proceeded to oversee a rapidly worsening crisis in tertiary education. Their response to this crisis has consistently been cowardly and insulting. “Inflation is a challenge [and] also when you have high rates of employment and the labour market is going gangbusters, then people often make the decision to go into the workforce instead of taking up tertiary study options” Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni told media in June when questioned about the governments’ role in university cuts “so there’s a range of challenges here. And I don’t really accept that the government is responsible for all of those challenges.” 

When forced to make concessions, the government did so in a way that ensured that they would be seen to be doing something, while in reality committing to very little. The extra $128m of funding announced in June was not the “bailout” it was hailed by the media. It was the return of a small portion of the funding that has been diverted away from tertiary education in recent years, and barely scratches the surface of the huge deficits faced by five out of eight of New Zealand’s universities. Student and staff activists can give themselves credit for forcing Labour to make this concession, but it was in itself a pathetic little thing. With the announcement of the budget in May, Labour took to boasting that they had provided the biggest boost to tertiary education in 20 years. As Serah Allison proves in an article for the ISO website, this is not the case. As she writes:

Funding under the Ardern/Hipkins Labour government increased modestly for two budgets before becoming volatile due to the response associated with Covid-19. Overall funding is now back at about where it was in 2019. Adjusted for CPI, funding has actually decreased from 2022 to 2023.

By some calculations, Labour has actually overseen the largest cuts to tertiary education funding in the last 20 years.

It is unsurprising, then, that Labour suffered such a terrible defeat in last month’s election. Young voters played an important role in their victory in 2017. It is too soon to have conclusive data about the results of the 2023 election, but pre-election polling suggested that young voters were abandoning Labour in significant numbers. Some of this support will have likely transferred to the Greens, who campaigned on significantly increased financial support for students, and who saw some important victories in the election, beating Labour in Central Auckland, Central Wellington, and Rongotai.

What have we achieved, and what next?

The most immediate and tangible gains made by this movement so far can be seen at Victoria University. The initial proposal put forward by management aimed to axe 229 full-time equivalent (FTE) roles. Nearly 60 programmes were up for review, facing the possibility of being radically downsized or cut entirely. After concerted student and staff fightback, the number of FTE posts lost was reduced to 140, 75 of those voluntary redundancies. Tragically, six courses were cut: Greek, Latin, Italian, Geophysics, Geographic Information Science and Physical Geography. But other courses that were on the block were saved, notably: German, Theatre, Music Composition and Secondary Teaching. This is not quite the victory of collective action that it is being hailed as by the TEU, and in fact much of the collective action was waged in spite of TEU national leadership. 140 FTE roles is still a blow, and staff at VUW are feeling it. But they are also feeling the solidarity extended to them by the students. “It was immensely heartening to witness the student protests during the hugely stressful time we have just had,” Theatre Lecturer and Save VUW Theatre organiser Kerryn Palmer told us:

A couple of moments that stood out to me: Sitting in the council chambers – I could hear staff members behind me sobbing, but when I looked across the room it was full of students – many of them our theatre students with huge protest signs, it felt like what we were doing  was being validated. The #Save Vic Theatre was an awesome campaign and the student-led debate in the hub was just great. Having the students raise their collective voices (and let’s face it theatre students are excellent at this) made me feel that yes what I was advocating for was for the right reasons.

At Otago results are also mixed. The cuts continue to be rolled out, at a much slower pace than anyone anticipated, making fightback more difficult to sustain. More than a hundred staff applied for voluntary redundancies, and several dozen employees have been made redundant involuntarily since the rounds of voluntary redundancy ended. POAG organiser and TEU branch co-president Brandon Johnstone credits the staff and student fightback with helping to reduce the harm of these cuts:  

This is absolutely unwelcome, but it’s certainly not at the scale that was promised. It is difficult to quantify the impact, but there is little doubt in anyone’s minds that we have saved jobs, and allowed others to find lifeboats before they lose theirs. There is of course the increased SAC [special assessment conditions] funding that we won too.

While this round of struggle winds down at Victoria and Otago, we may see further action at Massey. Management at Massey has been particularly opaque, keeping their plans for course and staff cuts behind closed doors. They have introduced policies, the “low enrolments” policy and the “digital plus” policy, which give them sweeping powers to axe courses without consulting with students and staff. The threat of cuts has been looming for months, and now, as the 2023 academic year draws to a close, the scale of the planned cuts is finally being revealed. Management want to cut, among other things, Engineering and Plant Science, along with around 50 percent of its Humanities and Social Sciences staff. Massey’s fate has yet to be determined. Students are gearing up for a fight in 2024, but the management has consistently shown a chilling level of disregard for student and staff voice, and a willingness to stoop to underhanded measures to push cuts through. 

Faced with these realities, student activists may be feeling discouraged. While acknowledging the limits of what has been achieved so far, we urge students not to become demoralised. It is important that students have taken a stand against these attacks. In recent years, university management has been able to push through cuts with little resistance. Each time, managers have promised that cuts now will save cuts in the future, while in fact each successful, unopposed round of cuts has only made the next one easier. Now there is a precedent of fightback, and the example of important victories such as the successful Save VUW Theatre campaign. These campaigns have brought mass protest to campuses across the country, and have drawn students who had never been politically engaged before into political action and awareness. 

The result of the election will also have left many feeling deflated. In this case, too, despair does not need to be inevitable. The political energy that has been generated on campuses does not need to dissipate. Before the election, the fightback against cuts motivated students to challenge Labour’s inaction on student issues. Now, we should be prepared to defend against attacks. We do not yet know National’s full plans for tertiary education. We know they are planning to establish another medical school (which will only exacerbate competition between institutions) and that they want to disestablish Te Pukenga, the centralised polytechnic institute. Prior to the election, National backed down on scrapping the one year of fees free tertiary education, but their Wellington Central candidate Scott Sheeran has continued to call it a “poorly designed policy” and has floated the idea of means-testing*. Given the austere approach that both National and ACT have signalled towards public spending and welfare, we have little reason to believe that they have good intentions in regards to tertiary education funding or financial support for students. This could be a cause for demoralisation, or a spark that ignites further struggles. Rather than succumbing to despair, students could be motivated to defend themselves against National’s attacks, and even to push for more. With determined struggle, gains can be made even under a National government. 

The politicisation that has happened on campus can have effects beyond campus, as newly activated students bring their energy to other struggles. We have seen this already. In September, the connections forged during the fight against cuts helped to mobilise Victoria University students for the protest against Julian Batchelor’s anti-Maori rally in Wellington. The same networks are currently helping to mobilise students in solidarity with Palestine. Historically, students have played an important role in wider political movements, from the fight against South African apartheid to the anti-Vietnam war movement, and the struggles for Women’s Liberation and LGBT rights. If we are going to wage a successful fightback against a right-wing government, we will need the energy, passion and creativity of student activists. * SInce this article appeared in print, the new government have announced their plans to scrap the first-year free tertiary education and instead introduce “last year free” tertiary education. This spiteful change will be sold as a way to combat falling enrolments by incentivizing students to complete their degrees. It will “solve” a problem that we will be told that we have: of greedy students taking their first year of free education and then choosing not to complete any more study out of sheer laziness. Of course, it will not do anything to lessen drop-out rates, because drop out rates are caused by student poverty and the unsustainability of “student life” as it currently stands. It will, however, increase student debt and lower expectations around student financial support and government funding of education, which is no doubt the point.