New Zealand students shift to the left

Issue 

By Susan Price
and Sean Malloy

Joss Debrecery is a member of the New Zealand NewLabour Party and a student at Otago university. During a recent visit to Australia, Joss attended the Resistance national conference in Melbourne and the Students, Science and Sustainability conference in Brisbane. He spoke to Green Left Weekly about the student movement in New Zealand.

"For about six years things have been dominated by conservative, bureaucratic types", said Debrecery. "In 1986 the right wing managed to take over Auckland University Students Association and then the New Zealand University Students Association.

"They sacked 12 of the 14 staff, and entered a court battle with them. They chucked out any kind of progressive policies and decided to concentrate only on education issues. They also decided that lobbying was the way to go.

"Even though there were big protests about education, we didn't really get anywhere."

Debrecery said the movement is starting to break away from the conservative office holders.

"For about three years there has been a debate going on over the Palestinian issue. Students at Canterbury were pushing for a resolution, condemning the closure of Palestinian universities.

"The issue eventually blew up at the beginning of the year. The bureaucrats tried to call a special meeting in Wellington, which only they could afford to go to. We managed to get that meeting stopped and the issue was put off until the May Conference of the NZ University Students Associations. It came down to a four-hour workshop on the role and the focus of NZUSA.

"Everybody who attended, except for the bureaucrats, thought that we needed to expand our role, to go out and take the fight to the streets, and there was talk about social democratic revolution and Paris in 1968.

"Since that meeting a few universities have been organising in the community, forming umbrella groups for all the unions and students and other pressure groups."

The NZUSA was changed from a union to a federation in 1986 when the conservatives took office. NZUSA has a budget of $80,000 per year, most of which is spent on salaries. Debrecery and other activists are working to change the nature of NZUSA, to initiate some national campaigns.

Debrecery says that activist layers are gaining strength on the universities.

"Nationally, activists are probably strongest at Auckland and Otago University and possibly Lincoln as well in Christchurch. The other universities are still bureaucratic, but they're becoming more left. In those three universities there are active people who have become quite strong within the student associations.

"Most campuses have an education action group which runs campaigns the whole year and is activist based, although you still have to run things past the executive of the campus unions."

Part of the break from the conservative officials has been a shift to take up issues other than education.

"The student associations are still concentrating on education, but at Otago, we formed a group with everybody in the community", said Debrecery.

Debrecery also talked about the attacks on students coming from the National Party government.

"The most obvious attacks are up-front fees of up to $6000 this year and up to $7500 next year.

"Reductions in student allowances mean that only about 20% of people who were getting a student allowance last year are receiving them this year. These allowances are also means tested now.

"We also have government loans, which we have to start paying back when our incomes reach $12,000 a year.

"We get charged 4% plus the inflation rate, interest, plus a $50 administration fee every year. So if you've got a $500 loan, it means another 10% interest. And the Employment Contracts Act [anti-union legislation] has made it really hard for students working in the holidays to earn decent pay."

The government's social spending cutbacks have undermined universities' ability to provide decent education, says Debrecery.

"This year our library dropped about 100 periodicals from its collection, including ones which it's had since the 1890s. There is not enough room in the lecture theatres. Tutorials for some subjects are being dropped because of overcrowding."

Discussing the influence of NewLabour and the Alliance of progressive parties on New Zealand politics, Debrecery says that an alignment towards NewLabour took place at the NZUSA's May conference.

"In terms of concrete actions there has not been much happening as yet, but a national network of university women's groups and a national network of student environment groups have been formed, and I think new developments are starting to emerge.

"At the moment it's at its very beginning stages, with people talking e next couple of years I think we're probably going to see a quite real radicalisation and involvement in all kinds of issues.

"As the Alliance comes together as more of a concrete entity, it's probably going to be the only party that is going to give any political direction to the student movement. I'm sure that by the end of next year NZUSA will be putting its support with them, advising students to vote for the alliance."

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