In the process of trawling through old issues of Canta, which I’ve been doing over recent days, I’ve borne witness to the fading of hopes for the Fourth Labour Government (the ‘Education Government’), and read on as the process repeated itself under Lockwood ‘Lightweight’ Smith, Education Minister for Jim Bolger. I’ve read the social history of the ideological annihilation of free education.
Promising to deliver on his promise to introduce a voucher system entitling all students to have the first four years of their first degree covered by the government, what we actually received in 1991 under Ruth Richardson—and it depresses me to think that most of us hadn’t been born by then—were sharply increased fees, means testing for student allowances for under 25s, and the implementation of a student loan system that accrued interest at market rates from day one. Promising to empower students and introduce market competitiveness and efficiency into the command economy of the Tertiary sector, the policies were an abject failure, and we’re all living with the consequences. At graduation last December, Ruth Richardson, who received a free education in the late 60s and early 70s at UC, received an honorary doctorate from another champion of the free market, Rod Carr.
Fast-forward twenty-one years—the coming of age of our system, I guess—and we’re getting shafted, just as hard and just as aggressively. Steven Joyce, a man whose surname belies what a joyless, Machiavellian shit he is, has managed to push through increased student loan repayments, reducing allowance eligibility and curtailing its timelimit. By now, though, we’re used to it; we know we don’t deserve to earn above the poverty line, to heat our flats, to live anything other than a precarious life. There is no common good.
These decisions, which target everybody, are just as egregious as the slow burn of the Arts. Pushing a ‘Science and Technology’ and ‘Trades’ agenda, he has consistently ignored the advice of his own advisors. The Department of Immigration, for example, while noting considerable Trades shortages, finds very few and very specific shortages in Science and Technology. The Ministry of Education’s study, What Do Students Earn After Their Tertiary Education (2009), notes that Science graduates have a 3% earning premium over Humanities graduates; a recent open letter to the government, signed by 560 scientists in New Zealand, decried the lack of jobs for Science. Redistributing $60-70m to these areas, and away from the rest of the University, is an attack on academic freedom and an attack on common sense. Make no mistake, this round of savage cuts and redistributions will be remembered as grimly as Ruth Richardson’s in 1991; we will see the atrophy of not just students this time, but whole sections of the University. And all this by a guy who took 21 years to do a Zoology degree at the largest Polytechnic in the country, Massey University.
But what I wanted to say, finally, is just how bleak the experience of reading all those Cantas has been. Slowly, issue by issue, the words ‘free education’ have drifted off the page, replaced by phrases like ‘student loan’ and ‘student fees’. What I have witnessed is the evisceration of the very idea of ‘free education’ and its part in the great society. Today, you’ll only ever find opposition to student fees buried in the UCSA’s policies; like Clause IV in the British Labour Party’s Constitution, these last bastions of oppositional culture, of communitarian belief, are little more than a reminder of where we come from, but are no indication of where we’re going. Like Clause IV, adherence to principles of ‘free education’ will someday be taken out of the constitution, to little opposition. As Frederick Jameson would say, it is now harder to imagine a free education—an end to neoliberal capitalism—than it is to imagine the end of the world.