Given the recent mood of the university, I’ve decided to reprint an extract from Grant Brookes & Dave Coyler’s Students and the Education Factory: A Marxist analysis of the crisis in education alongside a pdf of my nearly disintegrated original copy. I take as an article of faith that no-one will mind terribly much given the origins of the pamphlet in a now fifteen years deceased organisation. However, for anyone keen to get their hands on a physical copy of the pamphlet, the ISO are to my understanding the only organisation still reprinting it (in a new glossy form at that).
Bonus! I also found this vintage footage of the occupation, including the moment the building was stormed and Jim Anderton being trespassed.
Students Fight Back
STUDENT HAVE not taken National’s and Labour’s attacks lying down. From the outset, they have organised resistance. Two years of protests by students and teachers in 1979 and 1980 forced the National government of Robert Muldoon to drop the 3% education cut announced in the 1979 Budget. The marches grew to 11,000 strong. They were the biggest education protests since the 1930s.
Student unease about user-pays education grew in 1987 and 1988. In the lead-up to the 1987 election, the idea was publicly floated by individual MPs from National and Labour. In 1988, student protest revived from the low level of the mid-1980s. When the Labour government released the Hawke Report proposing user-pays education in late 1988, the anger on campuses was palpable.
1989 – The birth of the Education Campaign
In March 1989, the New Zealand University Students Association (NZUSA) president and vice-president toured the county speaking to packed student meetings. Together with the Aotearoa Polytechnic Students Union (APSU), they flooded the universities with thousands of leaflets and newsletters countering the lies of the Labour government point by point and calling on students to march. Their demand was for Labour to raise taxes on the rich to keep tertiary education free. A Week of Action was planned for July under the slogan: “Keep chequebook education out.”
The July protests were the biggest student demonstrations ever seen in New Zealand. Across the country, more than 20,000 – a third of the total student population – took the streets.
In Dunedin, more than 5,000 students from the university, teachers college and polytech occupied the Exchange. OUSA president Simon Rudd told them: “The government can no longer say that students associations don’t have the support of their members.” In Christchurch, 7,000 students brought the city centre to a standstill. The Press, not known for its support of student protests, reported: “More remarkable than the numbers . . . was the lack of the usual heckling from bystanders; the mood of the shopper was one of quiet support.”
Associate education minister Phil Goff was forced to announce that Labour’s loans scheme, which was to be administered by banks, was in trouble. Student leaders showed they could mobilise thousands of students against the government and warned that any banks participating in the scheme would get similar treatment. In September, a bitter Phil Goff complained: “Explicit threats to disrupt and sabotage the operations of the banks that participated in the scheme were a strong factor in preventing agreement being reached.”
At the end of 1989, students had the government on the back foot. How did a campaign with so much potential fail to capitalise on the obvious anger of students?
A crucial factor was the politics of the campaign. From the outset, NZUSA and APSU had sought an alliance between students and campus bosses. The May issue of NZUSA’s campaign newsletter stated: “The vice-chancellors were faced with a choice of accepting user-pays and the tempting additional revenue it would bring or taking the moral high ground.”
“To the credit of the vice-chancellors”, declared NZUSA, “they resisted the temptation”. The belief that the vice-chancellors were on our side guided NZUSA’s next step. They called for a fees boycott. Students were told not to pay their fees and reassured that the vice-chancellors were “sympathetic” and would not kick them out of their courses.
NZUSA was wrong and the mistake was costly. Letters from the vice-chancellor advising students that they’d be disenrolled if they didn’t pay up started to arrive. As individuals, the students boycotting fees were vulnerable and under pressure. But student leaders, from NZUSA down to local student executives, had painted the campus bosses as their allies as they mobilised students against the government. They were now confused and unable to organise mass action against the vice-chancellors which could have given the individual boycotters the backing they needed to win. The fees boycott collapsed. It seemed to many who’d been led by NZUSA that nothing more could be done and protests fell away.
1996 – Otago occupation shows the way
Student protest revived after 1990 as new attacks from National generated new anger. By 1994, protests against the Todd Report had almost reached the size of those in 1989. But in 1996, the Education Campaign advanced to an entirely new level.
There had been several occupations in New Zealand before. In the early 1970s, students had occupied at a number of universities. Maori students fighting for a marae on the Auckland University campus occupied in the mid-1980s and students at Canterbury and Lincoln had taken over their administration buildings in 1993. But there had been nothing like the nationwide explosion of student anger that erupted in the second semester of 1996.
Lincoln students were the first. In July, they staged a 24-hour occupation of their registry. But the match that ignited the campuses nationwide was lit at Otago University. Council fees-setting meetings are traditional targets for student protests. But the Otago University Council had worked itself into such a feeding frenzy that the 1996 meeting was to consider options from the Senate Working Party on fees ranging from a 25% increase upwards.
On Tuesday August 13, the day of the scheduled council meeting, 500 Otago students stormed their registry building. Their demand is a nil fee increase for 1997. The next morning sees them still in the building and pickets stop the few managers who try to get into their offices. The authorities send the clerical workers home and students control the building.
During the occupation, general meetings open to all students are held to discuss every aspect of the campaign at least once a day. The debate often goes on for hours, but students feel for the first time that they have a real say. The occupiers know that holding the registry will take hundreds of students. Rosters are drawn up for occupiers to speak at lectures and at the hostels calling on more students to join them. They create occupation rotas so they can take turns to go home for rest.
On Wednesday night, as chance would have it, Alliance leader Jim Anderton is scheduled to speak at a local New Labour Party branch meeting. The occupiers invite him to come to the registry afterwards. The media storm that erupts on Thursday after chancellor Judith Medlicott issues a trespass notice against him amazes everyone.
But even more importantly, Medlicott’s move outrages academic staff already bearing grievances over their wage claim and inspired by the militant student action. The lecturers’ union calls an impromptu stopwork meeting on Friday morning. The meeting fills a 350-seat lecture theatre. A student delegation is sent to address the staff. The meeting unanimously passes a resolution of support for the students and no confidence in the chancellor and vice-chancellor. They demand that Medlicott drop the trespass order. That afternoon, she does. By Friday night, the university authorities have lost control. They plead with the occupiers to take over weekend security patrols to ensure safety on the campus. Then they contact the police to discuss how to re-establish their authority. When the chancellor and vice-chancellor turn up to a meeting in the registry on Sunday night, they’re staggered as 500 students are there to meet them.
Facing imminent eviction by the cops, students vote on Monday to end their occupation. They did not achieve a nil fee increase. But they did achieve concessions. The fee rise passed afterwards by the council was 17%. 15,000 students had been saved at least $100 each. Perhaps more important was the staff-student solidarity which had been built. The lecturers’ union had donated money to the occupation. And in a first for Otago University, 400 lecturers marched to the registry on the final days of the occupation to show support for the students.
The inspiring struggle at Otago sparked a wave of campus occupations which delivered similar gains. At Auckland, a week-long occupation forced the fee rise for 1997 down from 24% to 15.8%. Lecturers organised a petition supporting the action. A day after Massey students occupying the registry were evicted by police, they re-occupied. Their action forced the 1997 fee rise down from 21% to 16%. Students also occupied at Victoria, Northland Polytech and the Auckland College of Education.
The Otago occupation is packed with lessons for students today. Using commandeered computers and photocopiers in the registry, the occupiers produced and distributed thousands of their own bulletins. The bulletins were designed to counter media lies, keep the wider student body informed and involved in the action, and build support.
The first one also explained “Why our action can work”:
The council say they are sympathetic about fee increases. We want them to put their money where their mouths are. If the university does not increase fees as is the plan, they will have to borrow to continue operating . . . The government will bail the university out as it will be too embarrassing for them to have a university go bankrupt. They will then have to increase funding so the university doesn’t go into debt again. The government can afford to bail the university out. It is making tax cuts, it has excess money.
Otago students refused to accept lower fees if this meant cuts for staff or facilities. They demanded a nil fee increase funded through cuts to management salaries or borrowing. “We have to borrow,” they said. “Why shouldn’t they?” And they were right about the pressure this would put on central government for more university funding. In the preceding 12 months, the government had stepped in to bail out three polytechs that borrowed money after going over budget.
The Otago occupation didn’t come from nowhere. Members of the Socialist Worker Students Club and its forerunner had been patiently arguing for an occupation since 1993.* The leading role of the SWSC in the Otago occupation was acknowledged by chancellor Judith Medlicott when she complained to the Dominion newspaper that her students had been “manipulated by the Trots”. But there was no manipulation. SWSC members announced themselves openly at all meetings. They spoke their arguments frankly in democratic debate. Two of them were elected to the six-member organising committee by a mass meeting of over 100 students.
The OUSA president was not among the leaders elected by the occupation. He hadn’t been involved in organising student protests beforehand. He did not join the occupation, either. His daily visits to the registry were to bring new arguments about why the occupation should end. In a moment of candour, he expressed perfectly the conflicts of his position. It was all very well for ordinary students to take this action against the managers, he said, but as student president “I have to work with [chancellor] Judith and [vice-chancellor] Graeme for the rest of this year.”
*This line might seem oddly vague or evasive for those unfamiliar with socialist sect history, that being most readers. I suspect this is deliberate. The forerunner group alluded to is likely the original ISO formed in Dunedin in 1993, which had merged with the dying Communist Party of NZ a year before the occupation (in 1995) to form the Socialist Workers Organisation. By the time this pamphlet was written in 1999 the ISO had long since split bitterly from the SWO (sometime around 1996-’97) and the two were on frosty to hostile terms.