In 1999 all students at Canterbury University paid a maximum annual fee of NZ$3,410 (NZ$1=US$0.52) for a full-time course. Under the new system courses that require more resources would be more expensive. Arts and social science students would pay NZ$3,410 while engineering and forestry students would have to pay NZ$4,210.
Defending the fee increase, Vice Chancellor Daryl Le Grew claimed that the university needs to produce an operating surplus of 10 percent. On the second day of the student occupation Le Grew suggested reducing the operating surplus to 8 percent with a general fee increase of 30 percent. This offer was rejected by the students, who gathered outside in the rain for the news cameras chanting, "We are here to stay!"
The following evening students voted to end the occupation and continue to fight the fee increase by other means. This was after the University Council agreed not to raise fees again in future years. Under this settlement the university still retains the right to increase fees to account for inflation, changes to the exchange rate, or government policy. A national education forum was also agreed to. This is to be held in November prior to parliamentary elections with the goal of discussing fees, loans, education quality, and access to education.
University of Canterbury Student Association president Darel Hall said the occupation ended "because we believe we achieved everything we could achieve at this point in time. We got important concessions from the vice chancellor." Other students reported they had received a lot of support from university staff and some local businesses sent free food for those occupying the registry.
A number of people interviewed by the Militant said this action was built on an occupation about a month ago. About 50 students took part in the earlier protest, and many continued to work together to organize the October 5 rally and occupation.
Following the meeting and vote to end the occupation, one student told the Militant he thought "the main achievement has been the solidarity of the students." He is studying law and plans to work for a bachelor of science degree next year that will cost him an extra NZ$900. Other students echoed his comments.
Other students around the country have organized protests against rising student debt and tertiary fees. In Wellington there was a rally followed by an overnight occupation of the registry by 100 students at the University of Victoria. Student Association Welfare vice president Alice Revell told the New Zealand Herald October 7, "We are here to support Christchurch students and protest against the rising cost of education and the indication that our fees will be set after the term break, when we will not be here to speak out about it." The protesters also said their action was in support of university staff preparing to strike over the university's demand for a wage freeze.
On October 12 more than 50 students occupied Auckland University for one night. One week earlier, some 50 students at Massey's Albany campus protested at an election meeting where the National Party government's tertiary education minister, Max Bradford, spoke. Students in Dunedin and Palmerston North have also taken protest action in recent months.
University courses for most students were virtually free until changes that began under the Labour Party regime in 1990. An official scheme of interest-bearing student loans for course and living costs was established by the National Party government in 1992. Government funding per student has fallen by more than 25 percent since then.
Student debt is now at a record high of NZ$3 billion nationwide. Today 10,634 students owe more than NZ$35,000 each, and 619 owe more than NZ$60,000. Interest rates on student loans are currently set at 8.2 percent — higher than home loan interest rates, which are as low as 5.95 percent for floating rate mortgages. Recent studies show that male graduates will take an average of 17 years to pay back their loans, while female graduates will take a staggering 52 years.
Ruth Gray is a member of the Engineers Union.
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