Students Left Disappointed, Forgotten and In Debt. Again.

This afternoon the University of Auckland Council resolved that the University would increase its tuition fees charged in 2014 by 4% for domestic students, the maximum allowable under the law. In addition, fees were also increased again for international students as well as for programmes not subject to the regular domestic fees cap, such as professional masters courses.

After all the fanfare about students, staff, and the public being locked out of the fees-setting meeting, it was revealed that the University was kindly going to offer a live-streamed viewing of the Council meeting, with Council members able to at least see (if not hear) the students whose futures they held in their hands.

Clearly, however, this was not of much help to the Council, with only three Council members voting in against the increases (student reps Nathan Ngatai and Craig Riddell, and Dr Alexandra Sims: I salute you). A four percent increase in fees amounts to at least a $207.08 increase for a full-time student studying a degree on the lowest domestic undergraduate fee level at Auckland. By my calculations, for the cheapest BA at this university, students will be set back $5384.08 per year for tuition fees alone. Students will have at least $16,000 of debt hanging over their shoulders by graduation, and that’s if they manage to get by without borrowing for living costs, course-related costs, or the astoundingly-high student services levy charged by Auckland Uni. The desperately unjust nature of this hardly needs explaining.

In addition, the attitudes and opinions that we saw when watching the Council, the governing body of our country’s largest university, meet to decide the tuition fees for its students, were truly astonishing. The meeting started ominously when a certain ministerial-appointee to Council claimed confidently that performance pay and what effectively amounts to docking the pay of academics “works well in the private sector”. Matters took a decidedly sinister turn when this same member stated that, in his opinion, starving academic departments of the funds that they need to operate properly and do stuff like, oh I dunno, teaching and research, is “a good thing in the long run” and will “teach the University to operate at an efficient level because, um, it works in the private sector.”

This is a truly staggering comment from somebody who has been appointed specifically to the role of governing a University. His words carried a particularly delicious irony as I learned today also that the Department of Political Studies will, as of next year, no longer be employing graduate teaching assistants (tutors) beyond first-year level. The Department has cited a lack of funds as the reason for this unfortunate step. This is because, unlike in the University Council’s fantasy land of ever-increasing efficiencies and “customer outcomes”, cuts in education mean just that: cuts. It means less staff, lower quality, less equitable outcomes and, ultimately, a poorer society.

Chancellor Ian Parton’s amazingly cavalier claim at the end of the fees vote that “this was a difficult decision, but that’s life” throws this into even starker relief. As student rep Craig Riddell succinctly put it, disadvantaged groups, Maori, Pacifica, and women are all disproportionately affected by fee hikes. Our university can not continue to countenance a future where it plays a supporting role in enabling governments to starve the sector of resources and hope that few enough voters care enough about it for them to get away with it. The truth is, Chancellor, that the real tough decisions involve standing up to the government and the broken funding status quo. They involve ministerial appointees acting in the interests of the country and the university rather than in the interests of their political masters. They involve sending a message that says “We will not stand for this. Our students have been squeezed enough, and if the government is serious about its stated goal of improving quality, then it had better stump up with the cash”.

Perhaps I’m naïve, but I continue to live in hope…

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