Dollars and Scholars: Protest, Property Damage, and Student Activism at Otago Uni

Dollars and Scholars: Protest, Property Damage, and Student Activism at Otago Uni

When the prices rise, so do the people

Disclaimer: Critic Te Ārohi does not condone property damage.

Ah, the ‘90s. An era which saw the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of the internet, way too much double denim, and a little thing called neoliberalism — responsible for causing the biggest and fastest privatisation and commercialisation of education. Tertiary fees soared, and as the prices rose, so did the people. 

Neoliberalism has become a buzzword for leftists and academics to vent about the skyrocketing price of oat lattes. Critic Te Ārohi dedicated an entire issue to the haggard ideology. But neoliberalism wasn’t always so omnipresent, and the sweeping fee rises across courses weren’t rolled out without a fight.

Students at Otago in the ‘90s were not the type to bend over and get fucked by Roger Douglas and his shitty economic theory. They took to the streets in massive numbers, occupying government buildings, MP offices, and, most famously, the University registry in the Clocktower. Shit was wild. And leading the charge during his tenure as OUSA President in ‘93 was none other than our new Vice Chancellor: Grant Robertson.

Critic Te Ārohi looks at the history of student struggle against The Man (neoliberalism, but the word gets old).


Neoliberalism: What’s the big deal?

Neoliberalism inspired a good seven years of mass student political organisation and protests attempting to get rid of it. The fuss? Neoliberalism was introduced by the 4th Labour government in the mid-80s when ol’ mate Roger practically said, “Let's make lots of money by selling off all our assets and cutting funding to state sectors” — Otago University among them. 

Even the nerdiest of Pols majors are boggled by the term ‘neoliberalism’, so here’s a brief explainer from Critic’s former political editor Annabelle: “[Neoliberalism] is essentially industrialised capitalism. It’s ‘the system’. It’s trusting ‘the market’ to sort out any and all problems that might arise. It focuses on eliminating regulation, lowering trade barriers, increasing privatisation, and moving away from a ‘state-controlled approach’.” It’s what means you have to pay exorbitant fees for an education.

As with most global fuck-ups, America and Britain were at the scene of the crime. Upon Ronald Reagan and Marget Thatcher's laissez-faire love affair, New Zealand adopted their bastard son, Rogernomics, in 1984. As baby Rogneromics grew, so did ‘90s tertiary education fees, rising from around 20% to 30% per year over a five year period. 

To give an idea of the scale of the fee rises we're talking about, Otago Politics professor Brian Roper told Critic Te Ārohi he graduated from a six-year Politics degree with a student loan of just “$1100”. That’s practically the cost of one paper now (POLS102 is $981.75). Even accounting for inflation, that’s a pretty big fucking difference. 

This particularly affected Medicine and Dentistry students (who already had the highest fees on campus). Thirty years of financial gatekeeping later, and you’ve got a whole cohort of elitism on our hands; who’ve adopted the individualistic “every person for themselves” meritocratic mindset of neoliberalism. And that’s not to mention disadvantaged students who were completely priced out of tertiary education.

The emerging political ideology provided a breeding ground for political apathy. Grant Robertson became president in 1993, and told Critic at the time that he thought there was a new class of students developing in the wake of increased fees: “Ones that do have enough money and don’t give a shit about anyone else. It’s more than apathy — it’s straight out individualism. They only really care about themselves. Increasingly, people are set up to think about themselves, and so they do [...] Those who can afford to be here are here, and trying to prick their social consciences is sometimes very difficult.”

But the increased fees weren’t the only thorn in students’ sides. The previous year (1992) the loan scheme was introduced to replace student allowances. Student allowance fell from a 95% eligibility rate to only one third of students being eligible within a few short years. Meanwhile, student loans accumulated interest (even whilst studying) at around the 7% mark. Otago students went from having a living wage that supported them through their degree, to having some of the highest tuition fees and lowest student support in the OECD (first-world). 

Student apathy was — and has since been — an issue. Just look at the uncontested OUSA Executive positions of last year. But decades ago? Students got mad, mad enough to unite and engage in mass activism. And so it began: massive week-long occupations, riots, and any manner of disruptive shenanigans. 

Lighting the match

It was Grant Robertson who first began trailblazing the student activism-to-Labour Party pipeline. In ‘83, Robertson mobilised a “raucous protest” on Union Lawn against a proposed 15% course fee, that saw riot police and the arrest of thirteen students — including The Big Cheese himself. Reminiscing about the event with Critic in 2016, Grant admitted that he “kind of knew we couldn’t stop the fee increase,” but was “trying to get the University to introduce a hardship fund for students who couldn’t pay” — a goal he had going into the job. 

From the Union Lawn, Grant led the crowd of around 1,000 students who’d accumulated at the University registry in the Clocktower. The target was a Uni Council meeting and for many students, this was their first ever protest. “If there had been one cop guarding the door, many would have been too scared to do it,” said Brian Roper, who was there when it popped off. The students occupied the hallway, stairs, and entrance of the registry. “There was a lot of tension outside,” said Grant. It was for naught: the fee increases went ahead.

“[Then] the team policing unit came in [and] they lost it. [They] started beating the crap out of everyone,” recalls Brian. A photographer allegedly took a photo of an officer dragging two girls away by their ponytails (we could make a John Key joke here, but that would be flogging a dead pony). Twelve protestors were hospitalised and a fair few were arrested — with Grant thankfully escaping ‘incitement to riot’ charges which could carry a prison sentence. 

The OUSA Exec at the time spoke out against the reaction from the authorities, saying it was “so unnecessary” for a “passionate but ultimately peaceful protest.” Far from deterring students, the police riot proved to massively radicalise the struggle. “[They] meant to suppress the movement, yet had the opposite effect; [they] inflamed it,” said Brian. An OUSA Student General Meeting was held immediately after the police riot, in which roughly 200 students turned up (numbers OUSA can only dream of now). 

Second Protest Wave: From Sparks to Flames 

The climax of the student protest movement was the 1996 week-long occupation of the clocktower complex (the reason for that big glass screen now around it). Many of the student activists parked up for the long haul in the tertiary equivalent of a slumber party. We’re talking sleeping bags, mattresses, food supplies, and boom boxes blasting Rage Against The Machine. Even Dunedin North Labour MP Rachel Brooking (then Admin Vice President of OUSA) said she stopped by for a nap, following in the footsteps of Grant Robertson. 

“The mood was joyful and at times it was tense,” said Rachel. She described one meeting with the Uni Council where they threatened to expel student activists from Uni. At that point Rachel “walked out of the meeting [...] I don't normally walk out of meetings.” 

The clocktower occupation became the “platform for expressing opposition to the neoliberalisation of tertiary education,” said Brian. In other words, Brian’s happy place. Rachel recalled “We thought it was prohibitive for only some people to be able to afford to go to university where you are gonna have these huge, huge loans.” Clocking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt with low employment opportunities upon graduation isn’t very appealing, it seems. In fact, between 2005 and 2022 tertiary student numbers have declined by around 100,000 across the motu (despite population growth of over 1 million), contributing to Otago Uni’s recent budget hole. The recent decline is the product of a complex shitstorm of circumstances, but one thing’s for sure: neoliberalism’s insidious invisible hand is in the mix.

After the ‘93 riots, police were reluctant to go down the same path again (whacking under 25s with sticks probably wasn’t the greatest look) and so the clocktower occupation continued uninterrupted. For the whole week, the occupation of the clocktower complex garnered national media attention. As word spread, similar occupations cropped up at other universities in Aotearoa. Student political engagement was at an all time high, and for a minute, students thought that they could win.

Sadly, they didn’t. At least not in the way they’d hoped. Current student activist (whose recent antics we’ll get to soon) Jowan said that while “the ‘90s stuff was hugely disruptive, it wasn’t massively effective.” According to Peace and Conflict Studies lecturer Richard Jackson,  neoliberalism was “such a powerful wave that no matter how much protest there was, it wasn’t able to be stopped.” 

Brian was slightly more optimistic: “The protests put the breaks on neoliberalism, even if we couldn’t stop it.” After the hard-line government austerity of the 4th National Government, the 5th Labour Government, between 1999 and 2008, “softened” neoliberalism by taking action such as removing interest from student loans. Students still have crippling student loans amid a cost of living crisis that’s draining already scant pockets, but we ball.

Protest Playbook: What we should (and shouldn’t) learn from the ‘90s

In Richard’s opinion, a major issue for the ‘90s student activist movement was that “New Zealand culture was pretty dismissive of scarfies – they were seen as a privileged group and so weren't able to generate public sympathy.” Now that 30 years of neoliberal values have been etched into students’ psyche, everyone’s too busy clawing to keep their heads above economic waters to be able to fight back. “The whole thing sucks,” Brian summed up.

Resigned acceptance of the status quo can often be mistaken for apathy. Richard thinks “students genuinely do care,” but the way education and society has been structured inhibits their ability to do anything. “The only way to secure your future is to finish your degree, get a job, pay off your student loan debt, and get a mortgage on a house,” said Richard. “It’s risky to protest as it could jeopardise your chances at any stage of your precarious position.” In other words, students are fucked and can’t complain in case they’ll risk getting more fucked. No wonder we’re all depressed.

“The way in which education has developed has occurred in a kind of disciplinary and controlling way that now makes political protest much more difficult,” said Richard. Specifically, student debt and fees are all ways to control and discipline students by putting them under financial pressure. Meanwhile, Brian pointed out that if our current funding model is “all you’ve known and all your parents have known, you don't know anything different.” A bit like how it’s difficult to imagine a new colour. According to Brian, this creates a pervasive feeling amongst students that “it’s just how it is.” There’s no sign of things changing any time soon, afterall.

Jowan puts this perception of “massive student apathy” down to three things: anxiety, fear of consequences, and lack of inspiration. He reckons that students are generally pretty conflict averse. “I've got friends who want to do action, but are really scared,” he said. This isn’t helped by the increase in security culture on campus, and the harsh punishments for students who get apprehended. 

When he spoke to Critic Te Ārohi in August of last year, Jowan and two non-students were facing $10k in damages to be paid to the Uni for the “wilful damage” (painting the walls and drilling holes in fire doors) of a room under construction in the Business School, in protest of Otago Uni’s “mismanagement” that led to the $60 million budget deficit. Of course, Officials expressed frustration in the weeks following the protest that the costs of cleaning up the mess and repairing broken property didn’t exactly help the Uni’s budget problem.
Richard was on Jowan’s side, saying “the harsh prosecution of those who painted the room [in the Business School] shows just how little tolerance the Uni has.” To top it all off, Jowan thought that classic protest actions of marching and chanting were “boring” and “just kind of feel like the same old thing.” 

Whether you think that protests are lame or are worried about the potential consequences from engaging in one, one thing is for sure: student political engagement is at an all-time low. You only need to cast your gaze to the OUSA candidate race (or lack thereof) to confirm this point. Out of the ten Exec positions, four ran uncontested. This included the Presidency which Keegan Wells won with a cruisey ten-minute spiel about pelicans and pastoral care against literally no one.

Today's Budget Cuts  

Last year’s announcement of tertiary staff cuts are part and parcel of the neoliberal agenda – the target of the ‘90s protest movement. Richard told Critic Te Ārohi that his job was “on the line”. He managed to retain his job, but the same could not be said for the hundreds of others who have been made redundant. 

“It represents such a huge loss for the Uni,” said Richard. “We could figure out alternative ways of doing things but there is no appetite for real consultation [with staff and students]” – something that received significant push-back from certain cohorts, such as those from the Department of Science Communication, whose voices weren’t heard in decisions that would significantly affect their futures. Instead, the Uni council has opted for a “top-down corporatist approach,” which Richard compared to Amazon’s structure.

Despite the dire situation, some still have hope. “There will eventually be an upsurge,” said Brian. Admittedly, he thought it would happen back in 2011, but like that psychic who predicted the world would end in 2012, he’s sure that it’s coming at some point. In the meantime, Richard said that “things will get worse in the tertiary sector before it gets better.” With that said, Brian was confident that “New Zealand has no appetite for hardline neoliberal austerity [...] If the incoming National government tries to push through more major cuts, there will likely be strong response from students and unions.” Brian clarified that he was talking about “mass militant action” in the style of the ‘90s. It isn’t just ‘90s fashion that’s making a comeback. 

Jowan had more of a 'glass half empty’ perspective: “I don't think we're going to stop these staff cuts in the way that we would like to imagine it, and I don't think we're gonna change the structure of the university.” 

“Students need to find new ways of resisting,” Richard reckons. In his eyes, the Uni likes peaceful protests in the style of marching and chanting as it is largely symbolic and ineffective at disrupting anything, meaning that the Uni can either choose to ignore it, or (if you were to be cynical about it) acknowledge it for a positive PR spin. Richard reckoned that “protest movements are moving into a phase of more aggressive direct action.”

The Damage Gets Done

The Business School protestors last year clearly heeded this call, taking a more “creative” approach. Jowan, a student activist who was partially responsible for the graffiti and damaged fire doors, offers his perspective. 

Jowan began by saying, “New Zealanders really like property, especially Pākehā New Zealanders.” In his view, calling property damage “violent” is pretty ridiculous. “Property is not a sentient thing. It doesn't have feelings. You can be violent to a person, but you can't be violent to a bed or a chair or something in the same way,” said Jowan. 

In a moment of wisdom rivalling a man discovering empathy on acid, Jowan mused that the real violence is what the property is doing to us. “The millions and millions of dollars to shift one department to one area and leave offices empty for years, and all this renovation work so that [by the time] we’re in our thirties, it makes like $4 million in profit for the Uni; that's the violence [...] The reaction by the university shows that it's a property management company and not an educational institution.”

So, with this in mind, Jowan and a number of other students, armed with paint and cups of tea, entered the Business School to do some “janky shit” (what is this, the ‘70s?). The idea came from the US, where a bunch of student activists barricaded themselves inside university buildings and used that barricaded defence to negotiate strong terms with the university to get change. “We felt that these rooms were just a canvas essentially for experimentation [and] recognised that everything was welcome and everything should be changed,” said Jowan. 

After two hours of arts, craft, and crockery, Campus Cop John Woodhouse and Deputy Proctor Geoff Burns arrived on the scene. “Damage is damage,” said Geoff, “regardless of intent.” Or artistic talent, as Critic noted in our reports of the incident last August. The University of Otago’s Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Tony Ballantyne told Critic Te Ārohi at the time that "peaceful protest has a long tradition at the University of Otago. It is important that students and staff are able to express their views and protest within the law. However, there is no place for vandalism or disorderly actions, particularly when the safety of others is put at risk. This is against the kaupapa of our community and is not welcome."

Apparently, the activists did a “pretty shoddy job” of the barricades, so Deputy Proctor Geoff Burns (“and his big muscles”) “ just blasted straight through them like they were butter,” said Jowan. Thinking back, Jowan reckons they should have barricaded the doors “tenfold” rather than having just “a couple two by fours screwed to a door.” He also didn’t reckon getting caught was such a great idea. If there’s one thing Jowan took out of the whole experience, it was to “fully send it on something and go the full way because if you're halfway there then you just just look like amateurs.” Lesson learnt?

Enter Stage Left: Grant Robertson

The economic climate isn’t any better for students now. The tertiary cuts announcements last year brought the issue to the forefront once more, but the tree of academia has been steadily whittled down to its bare boughs since the birth of neoliberalism. Successive rounds of cuts have deteriorated the foundation of tertiary institutions: its courses and staff. Enrolments - the thing that the University lauds as the solution to its financial woes - have been on a steady decline as poor government support and living conditions have further deterred students.

Now that Grant Robertson has been announced as Otago University’s newest Vice Chancellor, it’s as though the pioneer of the local student resistance movement against neoliberalism has come home. One can only hope it’s to clean up the mess that’s been made in his absence. Time will tell what his tenure at the helm of the ship will hold, but OUSA, the Uni, and students alike are holding their breath. 

This article first appeared in Issue 2, 2024.
Posted 5:23pm Saturday 2nd March 2024 by Zak Rudin.