Victoria University students protest cuts and commodification

Activists at Victoria University recently started a group called We Are The University.  Last Thursday they organised a Box University protest/occupation, involving several dozen students, in the Murphy Overbridge above Kelburn Parade in opposition to cuts to programmes and the general shift in recent years towards the university becoming a business.  The response of the university authorities was their standard one – namely, to threaten the students with disciplinary action.  Below is a piece written by one of the occupiers, Sam Oldham.  It first appeared on the website of Salient, the student magazine at Victoria.


Be rational and protest

by Sam Oldham

I would like to devote this space to outlining some of the reasons why I belong to the relatively new movement on campus known as We Are the University. Principally, I have chosen to be involved with the project out of rational choice.

The administrators of VUW, led by Pat Walsh, continue to implement policies that radically change the provision of education by this institution with little or no real consultation with students. Most of the cuts are being made in the Humanities as part of an international trend towards the corporatisation of universities. The crisis is the subject of a recent paper released by, focusing on “the close relationship between the crisis in the humanities and the corporatization of higher education, and the deep political significance of that relationship. For the humanities, and the related set of disciplines known as the liberal arts, are so essential to democracy that an attack on the former is an attack on the latter. Democratic political culture cannot exist without the humanistic disciplines of history, philosophy, literature, rhetoric and so on. Running colleges and universities on a business model, focusing on profit margins as the primary objective of higher education, is a serious threat to the foundation of democratic societies.”

The threat is real. Last month’s termination of two valued papers in the subject of International Relations at Victoria has reduced the discipline to a training programme for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and cuts to Criminology have devastated the quality of the major here. These ‘changes’ to our education, to use the euphemism of our detractors, do represent a process of dying education, as they represent only the most recent offensive in a sustained attack against critical thought.

We Are The University exists to promote discussion and action against threats posed to higher education in New Zealand by Government and university bureaucracies. Given that the administrators of VUW have shown that the ‘student consultation process’ in the form of written submissions is redundant, we have been looking at other ways to express our opposition to their policies of higher fees and corporatised education. Angry, militant protest action is not an illegitimate means of effecting political change. Struggles won through popular protest include those against slavery, apartheid, segregation, the war in Vietnam, and the list goes on. The Arab Spring should serve as a further example.
We have to understand that there is a time for dialogue and compromise in all circumstances, but when dialogue fails, new means of resisting illegitimate authority must be developed and employed. We must also understand that there are times when the interests of social groups conflict, and dialogue alone will do nothing to change that. Major corporations tend not to be in the habit of granting decent wages and better work conditions out of goodwill; workers win these rights by striking, demonstrating, occupying. In the same way, we cannot expect governments, public servants and students’ associations to represent the interests of students unless students themselves are willing to fight for them.

The most rational thing people can do is understand when their interests are threatened and take a logical approach as to what can be done to resist the threat. If dialogue has consistently failed, then the next step must be taken, and to promote dialogue alone, as a recent Salient opinion piece and guest editorial have, defies reason. Protest has worked here at Victoria; it saved the Film School in 2008. Please, if you have grievances concerning our tactics, I invite you to become involved in the group and be a part of the discussion. To do nothing and accuse us of being unreasonable is unfair and unhelpful.

One comment

  1. One of the issues raised by the Box University protest is the issue of where students are at now. The Box University was an imaginative protest and, indeed, a layer of student radicals at Vic in recent years have shown no lack of imagination when it comes to organising protests. And a few small victories have been won along the way.

    However, the university authorities have also managed to see off a number of protests, to temporarily expel ‘troublesome’ students and have other activists trespassed (essentially student and ex-student Workers Party activists). The university authorities have the measure of the student body – ie that the vast majority of students are still thoroughly apathetic and show little sign of mobilising, even in their own most basic interests as students.

    Relating this to struggles against the cuts at Vic, like the Box University, occupations are of two types. One type is where they are an effective form of struggle. They mobilise sufficient numbers of workers in a workplace or students in a university to prevent the institution from continuing to operate ‘business as usual’. They pose the question of power within the institution.

    The other type is where they are largely symbolic: that is they symbolise what needs to be done but can’t be carried out effectively because the conditions simply don’t exist. There’s nothing at all wrong with symbolic actions – they can be very useful – but the people involved need to have a fairly clinical analysis that the actions are symbolic and don’t represent a real threat to the powers that be on campus.

    Occupations that are effective forms of struggle are worth getting into trouble with the university authorities and the state over; symbolic protests are often not, because victimisations in those circumstances simply wear people out and/or prevent them from agitating and organising in the place, rather than taking the struggle to a newer, higher level as real occupations can.

    I’m currently reading Mark Rudd’s memoir and I’m in the early stages of it, where Rudd was a leader of SDS at Columbia University and about to become the most prominent leader of the famous student occupation there in 1968. It’s interesting to see how SDS at Columbia went about what they called “base-building”; oddly enough some of the architects of the base-building later abandoned the fine work they’d done and became founders and leaders of Weatherman, including Rudd himself.

    His memoir, which offers a sometimes excoriating critique of Weatherman/Weather Underground, is certainly something current student activists should read, keeping in mind that this is not the 1960s and forms of activity have to be rooted in real conditions.


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