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The Apathy of the UCSA

September 7, 2009

(My first article for Canta, for those who can’t or are too apathetic to read Canta)


In the 2009 UCSA elections, less than 20 percent of students voted and the list of candidates barely covered the vacancies.  A candidate who didn’t submit a photo or a short blurb describing his ideas was elected to the Exec.  Most people’s reaction to the results, if they even saw them, was “who cares?”  The UCSA’s leadership positions have become year-long resume-boosting managerial jobs rather than real political positions.  This is not unique to Canterbury: VUW, Otago and Auckland all have turnouts ranging from 10-20%.  Even as the government and the University management continue to make decisions that will lead to worse universities, lower-quality education, and less prestigious qualifications students aren’t interested in student politics.  But without a strong student voice in politics we cannot do anything about these decisions.

A long time ago, in the ever-dimming political past, the government in its free-market wisdom decided that low fees were not worth keeping.  Fees were re-imagined as an investment toward a future job and were correspondingly pumped up to somewhere nearer to “what the market would stand”.  Degrees are now a product, advertised like every other product as an ornament to improve your job and lifestyle.  Student loans have become a second mortgage: you get one for your home, why not your career as well?  Universities have evolved to match, and are now run as businesses providing products and services.  The old ideal of a University as a centre of research and teaching founded on the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, preserving and expanding our artistic, scientific and cultural heritage without any demands on “commercializability” or “marketability” has been replaced by the University as a provider of resume entries sold for tens of thousands.  The university leadership has similarly become a bunch of executives and managers obsessing about budgets rather than a council of academic leaders obsessing about research and teaching.

For a view of the future of our universities, just peer across the Pacific at the US system.  Parents pay enormous contributions to prestigious institutions so that their sons can become “Harvard men”.  The substance of the degree itself is almost an afterthought: if you get an Ivy League MBA you’re set for a cushy sinecure, maybe President of the United States or CEO of Enron.  Unfortunately, if your family isn’t rich you’re looking at massive loans to get these all-important letters.  Staff are suffering as well: the number of tenured positions is steadily falling while teaching is contracted out to poorly-paid postgrad students or recent graduates with no permanent job options.  These temporary and casual staff do not have the resources, experience or qualifications to maintain the level of teaching that used to be standard.  This is the future of the New Zealand University system if the current trend continues.

The UCSA used to organize headline protests, taking over the registry building or blocking off Riccarton Road in response to fee increases and other policies that hurt students.  This year when $600 was added to every student’s annual university bill there was merely a murmur of discontent followed by resignation and defeat.  Protests and activism get attention: news stories and the resulting government statements provide something for students to unite behind and force political parties to recognize students as a significant voting bloc.  They got students concessions such as fee freezes, interest write-offs and better student allowances.  But now that we barely make a noise, all we can hope for is slower erosion of our present conditions.  Real improvements are just a distant dream.

The source of student apathy is not laziness.  The services levy provides a good example of the typical trajectory of student-hurting proposals.  The fee was decided upon by the University managers, the UCSA raised a small but obedient fuss, and when everyone decided that there was really nothing that could be done to change the policy it was grudgingly accepted.  The UCSA didn’t have any power to influence the decision, and without someone to organize student’s frustration it dissipated into defeatism.  The VC explained at the student forum that the University was forced to introduce the levy because of insufficient government funding.  Students lost and their anger was deflected by the University management onto “The Government” which we have even less control over.  The only way to prevent this happening over and over again is to unite all of the people adversely affected by the government policies: the faculty and students must both work towards redefining tertiary education as an investment in a more productive and enlightened society and fight the conception of a degree as the user-pays entrance fee to a more exciting career.

It is going to take more than our typical UCSA Exec to get anything like this accomplished.  For the last several years the elections have produced a dynasty of bunnies, short-lived and weak managers who have little ambition beyond controlling food prices.  We need leaders with grander goals who will make demands of both the University management and the government.  Look at the presidential candidates in this year’s election: two leaders of popular social clubs and an outsider with a few modest goals.  Why has the Presidency become simply the next step up from leading a social club?  The UCSA is not a social club that just needs to be kept ticking over by a competent manager, it should be a strong force for student advocacy with real political goals and visions.  None of the candidates this year mentioned anything about government lobbying or uniting with the staff union or other student unions to achieve national goals.  The Exec should be a group of political leaders with bold ideas about maintaining the quality of our education in the long term, but at present they are a bunch of contented rabbits hopping around in whatever cage the Government and the University decide to keep them.

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