21st Century Scarfies: Too Cool to Care?

21st Century Scarfies: Too Cool to Care?

“If our colleges and universities do not breed men who riot, who rebel, who attack life with all their youthful vim and vigour, then there is something wrong with our colleges. The more riots that come on college campuses, the better the world for tomorrow.”
- William Allen White, influential American
journalist from the early 20th century

When I first came to university as a wide-eyed first-year Law/Politics student, I arrived with visions of mass student protests demanding change in the world. Students hold a powerful position in society: the combination of being young, free and engaged in learning enables us to think and perceive of the world differently.

History shows a rich connection between students and politics. The 1960s saw students at the forefront of anti-Vietnam War protests and various other left-wing movements. Students led the famous May 1968 protests in Paris, which sparked left-wing movements all around the world. Here at the University of Otago, students were national leaders in anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, Springbok Tour protests, and more student-related protests in the 1990s.

As White points out in the opening quote students need to perform their roles as societal bad-asses to create a well functioning world. We need to be radical, to demand change, to not simply accept the status quo. Without us performing this role, the world would be a sour, bitter, downright depressing place with the older, cynical establishment dictating the world we live in.

Ex-Otago student, and current Dunedin North Labour MP, David Clark believes students “are given a privilege of a certain way of understanding the world… and of advocating on behalf of what is right,” which he believes makes students the “critic and conscience of society.” As I have progressed through university it has become apparent that students today really couldn’t care less about being the “critic and conscience of society.” Which begs the question: why not?

The Scarfie of the 21st Century

OUSA President Logan Edgar reckons that an almost anti-political atmosphere has developed. “There’s a real thing like it’s cool not to care, which is fucking bullshit” says Edgar. Dan Benson-Guiu, a “politically active” student, goes further. “People on campus are not political at all. Full stop.” Many older people I spoke to for this article shared a common message: “I remember when universities were a hotbed of radical student activism; not anymore.”

On the surface, it certainly seems that scarfies today have traded politics for pingers, and are more likely to be seen munching their faces off on the d-floor than out in the streets demanding change. But if you dig a little deeper it is clear that life as a student today is vastly different to what it was in the past.

Clark argues that students today have less time than when he was at university to be politically informed. “ … today, it’s very difficult to be politically informed, successful at University, and afford to live.” There is a much heavier workload now than 20-years ago, with internal assessments, and more pressure to get higher grades. And with the burden of student loans, most of us devote any free time to working part-time jobs simply to get by.

From these various pressures, a strong sense of apathy towards anything political has developed. We’re not happy with having mortgage sized student loans, living in third-world style flats, and we certainly don’t like the fact that most of today’s politicians went to university for free and received an allowance. But this is the way it is, and we seem to think we can’t do anything about it.

Dr Roper, a senior lecturer at Otago and former student, argues it doesn’t have to be this way. “When I was a student back in the eighties, I paid $176 in fees all up, and I had an adequate living allowance.” That all changed in 1990, and fees have been rising steadily ever since. With the University of Otago attaining a record $26 million surplus last year, clearly someone is feeling quite happy about the changes, but I don’t believe it is the students.

A Day in the Life

In the 1990s, life as a student at the University of Otago was alive. It was a hotbed of student political activism and at the forefront of societal change in New Zealand. Students were awake to the issues of the world, and they made their voices heard.

On a typically cold, wintery day in August of 1993, 300 brave students stormed into the University of Otago registry to prevent the council from meeting and raising university fees. Fees had been increasing steadily each year and students had had enough. The students blocked the hallway and prevented the council meeting from taking place. Dr Roper was a key member of the group: “We shut down the council meeting and we all left feeling really pumped.”

The incident received national publicity, and several months later a stronger, more determined group blockaded the clock tower to prevent another meeting. This time the cops were prepared, and a violent struggle ensued. Roper recalls that, “The Police unit basically assaulted and injured a significant number of students.” Rather than quell student discontent, this police brutality radicalised a large portion of the student population and gained nationwide sympathy.

Over the next few years this vanguard group continued to grow, and at their peak they led a four thousand strong army of students and supporters down George Street to culminate in a mass rally outside the Department of Inland Revenue. Another occupation of the registry in 1996 lasted an entire week, again gaining nationwide attention and spurring student protests all over the country. They didn’t stop the introduction of fees and the removal of allowances, but they did put a dent in the government’s agenda, and helped prevented universities from becoming privatised.

Interestingly, following the protests of the 1990s, the University changed the date for when they announce the fee increases to after the exam period, when most students have left Dunedin for the summer. Subsequently an occupation of the registry “1993 styles” may be out of the question.

Time to join the party

A quick look in the world news will show you that Otago, and New Zealand students generally, are being left behind as students all around the world rise up against oppressive university administrations and governments. In the last five years students in London, Santiago, Quebec, Mexico City, and all over the United States, have taken to the streets to protest against rising fees, privatization of universities, and lack of job prospects.

In the state of Quebec in Canada, a student strike has been going for over five months in protest of government plans to raise fees. Cami La is on exchange from Quebec, and was involved in the movement that at its peak had over 300,000 students on strike. She explains that students in Quebec have always paid very low fees for university, and they have kept them low due to active opposition to government plans to change it.

Opposition began on a small scale, but quickly gained momentum, and this year they have had marches of over 200,000 people. Cami La explains “There would be protests every day, thousands of people in the streets everyday.” She was very surprised to see, and to learn how students mainly come here simply “for a good time”, especially given Otago’s rich history of activism.

Trine Riis Jensen, an exchange student from Copenhagen, Denmark, is also shocked at the lack of student activism here at Otago. She describes Denmark’s tertiary education as a dream-like situation where, “There is no tuition fee and we get government support, which is around $1200 a month.” While this may seem like some distant utopian dream world, it needs to be remembered this was essentially the system in New Zealand up until 1990.

Hey, this is crazy… student protest maybe?

Dr Roper believes students today shouldn’t be too disappointed with the lack of student activism. He views the history of political “struggle” as coming in waves. In high periods of struggle, like in the 1960s and 1970s, there were multiple areas of society involved – women’s liberation, civil rights, anti-war, and so on – and they were all interconnected positively and mutually reinforcing of each other.

Dr Roper explains: “Once you get an upsurge in struggle, the struggles that are going on in different parts of society start to positively reinforce each other.” As one group succeeds in gaining ground in one area of society, other groups see they too can pursue their political struggle. In the low periods of struggle, like today, you can observe apathy and complacency, where people may not be happy with the situation, but don’t feel they can do anything about it.

Benson-Guiu believes the OUSA is largely to blame for the low levels of activism. “You see it in the OUSA exec, it’s not throwing out the issues to students, and students don’t know what is going on.” However Edgar argues that as a result of the Voluntary Student Membership Act, passed last year, the Union “has their hands tied.” However the recent cuts on student allowances are a prime example of OUSA keeping their mouth shut, with barely a murmur of opposition from students down here. Hard to see how Edgar’s hands were tied there.

Edgar believes the gradualness of the fee increases today makes it hard for a student movement to get traction. The protests of the 1990s were a result of drastic fee increases of 30 to 40 percent, instead of the gradual 5 percent or so increase we see each year. Edgar believes there is only one thing the government could do to get students back on the streets: “If interest went back on interest loans, then I reckon everyone would get out and protest; if they didn’t, they’d be fucking idiots.”

Edgar says to look out over the next few months for some form of opposition to “Super-Minister” Steven Joyce’s plans to cut down the University Council from twenty members to eight, and make them all his own appointees. “Hopefully students care about this one, otherwise what the fuck is going on.”

The Times They are a-Changin’?

While there is an obvious lack of student activism on campus today, climate change focused group Generation Zero is an example of a more activist student group. Spokesperson Louis Chambers says “from a Generation Zero perspective, I think we are helping students to “wake up” and to engage with big issues like climate change.” He explains the general sense of apathy in the student population has been hard to overcome, but they have been focusing on ways to get students involved and believe they can make a difference. “The feeling that ‘I can’t do anything’ is really just because the world is so complex these days. If you can give people a vision for how they can get involved, then they’re more likely to feel empowered to do something.”

From her experience in Denmark, Trine Riis Jenson also believes we should not lose hope. “It’s not because people can’t do anything, it’s because people don’t realize they can do it. If you organise things in the right way you can make some huge protests where it wasn’t expected at all.” In her opinion, students at Otago, and in New Zealand as a whole, have no right to be apathetic: “If I was a student here I would be protesting all of the time because there are just so many things!” Her main concerns are the that we pay so much for university, and also the state of our student flats, which she experienced first hand: “In Denmark it would never be accepted that you have to live in such bad conditions in your house!”

Dr Roper too sees no reason why we can’t demand a return to the free tertiary education the older generation received, the generation who are today giving themselves enormous tax cuts. “The only way we are going to get back to something like that, is when we see thousands of students protesting on the streets and occupying registries, and saying enough is enough.”

According to an old Chinese proverb: “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is today.” It’s never too late to get involved. Being a student is your one chance in life to get loose and demand positive change in the world. We are young, and idealistic, and have not yet been soured by the stark realities of the world. We have not yet become shriveled up cynics like our mainstream politicians. They are not going to make the world a better place, we are. Real change comes from the streets. So it is time for us students to wake up from our slumber. Or are we simply too cool to care?
This article first appeared in Issue 23, 2012.
Posted 4:03pm Sunday 9th September 2012 by Michael Neilson.