In Defence of Modern Students: A Reply to Chris Trotter

Chris Trotter has put out a piece, lamenting the myopic focus of modern student activism on, well, students, and the tendency of university-educated policy-makers to take care of their own:

https://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com/2022/07/poverty-is-indivisible-ms-swarbrick.html

I think he raises some fair points, at least in the sense that assisting New Zealand’s university students is not, in itself, a cure for society’s collective ills. But speaking as someone who was a long-serving member of the Otago University Students’ Association Executive some thirty years after Trotter’s own time at Otago, I do believe he is being fundamentally unfair to “modern” students in general, and to Students’ Associations in particular.

First off, Trotter goes out of his way to remind us that students generally come from privileged backgrounds. “Our future judges, doctors, prime ministers, et cetera.” And that is true – the children of New Zealand’s elites do invariably attend university. The problem is, whereas in Trotter’s era, one could get a comfortable job without a university education, that is no longer true – and has not been true for a long time. We live in an era where the person serving coffee behind a counter might well have a Masters degree. Otago’s law graduates do not necessarily find work as lawyers. Sometimes, they find work as working-class security guards. For such people – many of whom (like myself) are actually the first members of our families to ever attend university – a university education is a “necessary but not sufficient condition” to achieving prosperity.

(And insofar as a university education is a pathway to success, it represents the last vanishing trace of social mobility in twenty-first century New Zealand, the chance for the children of school caretakers and the grandchildren of coalminers to rise. To my mind, such a pathway is to be treasured as a protection against social stratification).

It gets worse when one considers the inherent unfairness across generations. Trotter belongs to the generation of university students who did not have to pay a cent for their education. I do not. The modern New Zealand university student leaves their institution with a whopping student loan debt, which naturally impacts on their subsequent ability to settle down and start a family (and people wonder why people are starting families later….). Leaving New Zealand – as my sister has done – attracts interest payments on that debt, with all the issues associated with that. The kicker, of course, is that the generation who had their tertiary education paid for by the state… they also happen to be the one that owns all the houses. Modern students have a long time renting ahead of them, even after they leave university.

Then, of course, there is the nature of what modern university study entails. Students these days simply do not have the time luxuries of their forebears. They are weighted down with internal assessment, unable to meet with their fellows until evenings due to the lack of any common lunch hour, and know full-well that they Must Pass. “Dropping out” of study is not a viable option in an era where everyone needs a degree. One might devote time to a Club or two, but that’s it. Activism of the variety Trotter envisages requires an ongoing time investment the majority of students do not currently have.

And underlying all of this is one of the grim truisms of politics: it is much harder to think and act outside your group when your group’s house happens to be on fire. Trotter’s generation might have idealistically organised against the 1981 Springbok Tour. Fair enough. His generation – as gifted with opportunities as any in New Zealand history – never had to worry about their tertiary education, much less campaign on it. A modern equivalent of anti-Tour activism is much harder to organise when Students’ Associations struggle with the bread and butter of student issues, day in day out.

If students in 1981 were campaigning against Apartheid South Africa, students in 1991 were campaigning against user-pays education, students in 2001 were campaigning against interest on student loans, students in 2011 against the gutting of Students’ Associations, and students in 2021 for the restoration of postgraduate access to Student Allowances (a Labour Party election promise in 2017, still unfulfilled). Are the goals shrinking in ambition? Yep. Because it’s hard to Dream Big when you’ve faced three decades of Death By A Thousand Cuts. When one of New Zealand’s major political parties is hell-bent on destroying you, and the other does nothing to reverse the damage… you take any victory you can get, however small. Grim pragmatism is at work here, not implicit class snobbery.

I also have to smile at Trotter’s line here:

Interviewed on RNZ’s “Morning Report”, Swarbrick lamented what she described as 40 years of deliberate disempowerment of university students as a force for political and social change. Although she is far too young to have any personal memories of the days when the nation’s campuses seethed with radical ideas, and student demonstrations against war and racial injustice numbered in the tens-of-thousands, Swarbrick was clearly aware how decidedly the times have changed. Particularly damaging, she suggested, was the abolition of compulsory student union membership. Its demise had fatally weakened the student movement.

“Bullshit!”, I shouted at the radio. Student unions, compulsory or voluntary, had little to do with the explosion of student radicalism in the 1970s and 80s. In fact, these student “associations” were inherently conservative institutions.

I smile because I know exactly what Swarbrick is talking about – and it doesn’t refer to the activism of Trotter’s era. In Trotter’s era, running against the crazy radicals was a favoured tactic of conservative student politicians. For obvious reasons, you don’t get that now. Twenty-first century Students’ Associations are stressed-out service providers, struggling to keep their heads above water, while chasing down Vice-Chancellors and Government Ministers for the barest crumbs of generosity.

What Swarbrick actually means is that abolishing universal student membership puts Students Associations in an extremely vulnerable situation vis-a-vis their Institutions. Those services I have referenced are now funded via the Institution and not from students directly. So when a University screws its student population, how can a Students’ Association dare speak out when they get their funding from said University? The Voluntary Student Membership model was put in place to suppress the last embers of student radicalism. Specifically 1990s and 2000s radicalism, Mr Trotter. Not 1970s and 1980s.

(And the depressing thing is that the Otago University Students’ Association is lucky. They get a third of their income from their own assets, most notably their ownership of the University Bookshop. The Otago Polytechnic Students’ Association is less fortunate. It has no assets… so is entirely reliant on the “good will” of their Institution. Talk about skating on thin ice).

**

So yeah. Such is the predicament of New Zealand’s students in the early 2020s, and it is not a happy one. Rather than “middle-class myopia” ignoring the plight of those in true poverty, what this actually represents is a complex bundle of quite peculiar issues. If one could wave a magic wand, and have the student population again be able to take free education for granted, if houses were readily affordable, and if decent jobs were a dime-a-dozen for graduates – in short, if only today’s students enjoyed the privilege of those in Trotter’s era – I am sure that you would see Universities again engage with the outside world in interesting ways. Until then, putting out the fire in one’s own house takes up an awful amount of time.

3 thoughts on “In Defence of Modern Students: A Reply to Chris Trotter

  1. Recently I was having my hair cut here in UK. The barber was a friendly bloke, we swapped life stories. It turned out he was a Kiwi exile of 25 years. I mentioned this blog and Dunedin. “Yeah university town”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yep. The University of Otago (established off the back of the Otago gold rush of the 1860s) is the oldest university in New Zealand. The city used to be far more prominent than it is now, to the point where Dunedin has basically been in a century-long decline… hence being reduced to the status of “university town.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It is a brillian tactic: First you impoverish people and undermine any security they had, until they must spend all their time and ressources to fight for themselves …

    … and then you delegitimise and dismiss their activism and struggels because they focus on themselves, rather than others.

    Liked by 1 person

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