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VUWSA …and the World of Student Politics

Tristan Egarr



With VUWSA election results due out on friday, Salient delves into the past to document historical landmarks in VUWSA’s history and how our association compares with others around the world.

“Hands up who wants student politics?” – “Sonny’s Burning”, The Birthday Party.
Spring-time is nigh. This means three of my favourite things come out to play: ducklings, daffodils and student body elections. You will, by now, have taken a look around at all the malicious and slanderous posters. Honestly, where else could so much delicious vitriol (outside of actual grown-up politics, that is – these kids have nothing on Parliament’s question time). But let’s get serious for a second: although watching the communists scream “Act patsy!” and the Act patsies scream “Communist!” is the most enjoyable element of student politics, for most of the year our student ‘leaders’ just get on with doing the important stuff: handing out food parcels, protesting against fees, counselling traumatised exam-failures, protesting against wars, trying to make Uni environmentally sustainable, and protesting against fees some more.
If this all sounds dreadfully boring, it’s because it is. However, in less comfy nations than ours, and in less tolerant times, student politics play an important role speaking truth to power. In order to get to grips with what student politics really means, let’s take some time both to consider the legacy of our own VUWSA, and to examine how other student unions function around the world.
VUWSA – the Red Menace of Kelburn Hill
When Victoria College was created in 1899, the very first incarnation of VUWSA – the Victoria College Students’ Society – was created, with an executive of seven men and five women. In 1906, they successfully campaigned for discounts on the cable car. At this time, almost all students worked full or part time, so lectures were held before 9am and after 5pm; the VCSS also campaigned to shift 5pm lectures back ten minutes, in order to allow student time to get up the muddy hills to class. Yup – it’s all pretty boring shit, but it was all pretty necessary and allowed students to study without tearing out their hair in frustration.
Initially Vic students were a fairly patriotic bunch. After the Defence Act of 1909 introduced compulsory military training for men, 74 students banded together to form an Officer Training Corp and carry out manoeuvres (many later died in the Great War). In 1921 when a Teachers College student was arrested for “selling literature encouraging violence and lawlessness” at a Communist Party meeting, the renamed Victoria College Students Association cooperated with authorities in an inquiry to root out the red menace. Membership of the Association became compulsory two years later.
Besides some outcry over the Depression and war, the radical wing of VUWSA which we have come to expect today did not materialise until the 1960s. This may be because it was during the Sixties that Vic became populated largely by full-time students able to devote themselves to politics and protest. Simultaneously, the opening of the student union building meant the student exec moved from simple lobbying into an administrative function.
The new student radicalism first emerged with the Anarchist Association’s anger that the exec was not protesting fee rises. It then went on to encapsulate opposition to the Vietnam War, and feminist outcry at the Miss Vic pageant and sexist performances in the capping parade. However, the vast majority of students, then as now, neither voted in student body elections, nor spoke out on political issues. Nevertheless, student radicalism grew throughout the 1970s, culminating in the 1981 anti-tour protests.
Also, in 1975 the VUWSA Trust was set up to cover the cost of defamation and libel suits against Salient. The Trust subsequently lost $100,000 in the ’87 stockmarket crash. Oops. Nowadays, the high cost of living in Wellington means Vic students have moved increasingly back into part-time work. The radicalism of the Seventies, which began to decline after the violent mess of the ’81 tour, is once again only evidenced by a small minority of students.
Global Student Activism (involving much shedding of blood)
How, then, do our student politics compare with that in other parts of the globe? Well, unsurprisingly – given that we are after all a democratic and “Western” nation – NZ students have much more say over student representation than do students in many other nations. A number of students from Singapore and Malaysia have told me that both their student leaders and the editors of their student magazines are selected by the university bigwigs, and thus have little to no opportunity to complain about academic freedoms, fees, or anything else for that matter.
Of course, the existence of radical student politics is not necessarily reliant upon elections, so the non-existence of democratic student politics does not stop students in such areas from forming their own societies. However, it does mean that they lack legitimate representation which their University bodies are forced to listen to.
Students I have talked to who have studied in Britain and the USA generally tell me that their student politicians are even more politically radical than ours. Hence, the clashes between massive pro- and anti-vivisection rallies in Oxford after the opening of an £18m biomedical research centre in February, 2006.
But the most radical student politics are taking place, not in these bastions of political freedom, but in Iran, South America and China – places where students really have something to complain about.
Iran’s largest student union, Daftare Tahkim Vahdat (the Office to Foster Unity) is that nation’s largest and most vocal pro-reform (and, to an extent, pro-Western) group. In July 1999 several Tehran University students were killed by police and militia while protesting in support of a recently-closed pro-reform newspaper. In late 2002 students held mass protests against a death sentence handed out to lecturer Hashem Aghajari for alleged blasphemy. In 2003 thousands of students protested the privatisation of tertiary education. When President Ahmadinejad visited Amir Kabir University in December 2006 and urged students to boycott liberal lecturers, thousands of protesters heckled the President, shouting “death to the dictator”.
On May 3 this year, students from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil occupied the University’s head offices, demanding more professors, more classrooms and reforms of the University’s management. They did so without the help of the country’s largest student unions, and kept their occupation going until June 22, when protesters and university authorities managed to reach an agreement without police intervention. The protestors compared their actions to the famous May 1968 Paris riots, when students fought against rigid restrictions upon their educational opportunities. Similar events also took place in May last year when 40,000 students in Chile held mass strikes and marches to demand cheaper public transportation, lower entrance exam fees and restructured class times.
In October last year, Chinese students in Jiangxi province learned from a television new bulletins that they would not be able to receive the four-year diplomas they had been working towards. Subsequent student riots were put down by thousands of police and soldiers.
If all that makes VUWSA’s cardboard-box campaigns for lower rent, debt-monster protests against fees, and distribution of free bread all seem dull – well, good. Violent protests might be more sexy, but the fact that we don’t need to go that far can’t really be considered a bad thing. Ask yourself – what would you rather have, free bread or broken limbs?

The historical information regarding VUWSA presented in this article is taken from A Radical Tradition: A History of the VUWSA, by Stephen Hamilton, which you can pick up from Vic Books for about twenty bucks. Information about global student movements is available at http://www.globalvoicesonline.org/