Monday, May 09, 2005

President's Column - The Good, The Bad, and the Politics

The 1999 General Election seems like a long time ago, but I remember it quite clearly. Shipley’s National Government was on the rocks following the implosion of New Zealand First, and a very-public falling out between Prime Minister Shipley, and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters. It seemed certain that Labour were going to win, and that Jim Anderton’s Alliance Party would be supporting them. I remember this election as it was the first election I voted in. I had turned 18 only a few months earlier, and the day after my last bursary exam I trotted off to the Helensville Primary School hall and voted.

I was heading to the University of Auckland the next year to study law, and looked forward to the free education that the Alliance promised in their manifesto. Needless to say, I voted for Laila Haire (living in the Waitakere electorate), and the Alliance. Sure enough, days later, pictures of Jim Anderton and Helen Clark shaking hands (and thus forming a coalition) graced the front page of the New Zealand Herald. Students were saved from the strangle-hold of Max Bradford and his band of marry men.

Two things never came true: Firstly, despite a kick arse score in Graphics (top in my school, no less), I bombed out in Geography (mildly ironic?) and didn’t get a good enough bursary score to get into law – this drove me to write fucked up letters as a pseudonym to Salient. Secondly, the free education that the Alliance promised never eventuated.

Things started out on the right track for the Labour-Alliance coalition. On their much-heralded “pledge card”, Labour stated that they would make tertiary education more affordable. Tuition fees were frozen, so institutions couldn’t crank them up on a whim. Interest was not charged on student loans for all students while they were studying. All this happened before I had my first lecture four months after the election, so it would be fair to say it was a high priority.

However, after an initial spurt of action, nothing else really happened. There were rumours of a universal allowance (of some sort), and the abolition of fees in favour of a graduate tax (which I’m in two minds about), but nothing ever came of it. In the 2003 budget, a “fee maxima” scheme was announced. This meant that most institutions were able to raise their fees within a certain range, to allow for “correction” of fee levels. Admittedly, this was not as bad as the free-for-all free increases of the 1990’s, but it was still against Labour’s 1999 pledge. Even this turned out to be a little bit of a joke really, as all applications to the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) for an increase above the maxima were approved, including 10% fee increases for medical students at Auckland and Otago.

Even things which the government are proclaiming victories for students are turning sour. Last year, there was the much-publicized raising of the parental income threshold for students on allowances. Even NZUSA put out a press release in support of this (and they’re hard to please). It turned out that this was at the expense of almost all students who were on independent circumstances. And now it turns out that 23% less students claimed the student allowance in the first quarter of 2005 compared to the first quarter of 2004 (hat tip to Keith Ng – nice way to make yourself famous).

Why should you care? The generation that is currently in Parliament (with a few exceptions) all got an education for free – including the Prime Minister, the Minister of Education and most of Cabinet.

This election, student have got to unite and show the politicians that we are not going to stand for this sort of treatment any more. There are 200,000 students in New Zealand (give or take) – that’s enough to put any party in power. Hell, if we all voted for the Natural Law Party, we’d have a Prime Minister who believed that New Zealand’s energy problems could be cured by the untapped power of rainbows…

This starts next Tuesday. Just before everyone (well, everyone that’s completed their degrees) graduates, and two days before Dr Cullen announces his budget, students will be marching from the Kelburn Quad to Parliament. We will be presenting a list of demands, including a stop to fee increases, and more funding for the tertiary sector. Chris Knox is going to be playing in the quad before hand, and we’ll have a sausage sizzle and all that jazz from around 12pm onwards.

If you only come on one protest while you’re at University, I would recommend you come in this one. The more people we get, the more seriously we are taken, and the better deal students get.

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