Well-articulated rant #4

21 Jun
This week, ElevenHoursAhead will be publishing the thoughts of current and former students on the real value of the student allowance system. Here is today’s personal reflection from Gradon Diprose:

“They get on TV and they can make a bit of a racket … dragging a few rubbish bins around, they need some Greeks to show them how to do it”. “It gets reported, mainly because it blocked the traffic, [but] who’s listening? Most people actually think the students got a pretty fair go and they should count themselves lucky that they’ve still got interest free loans and get on with it because, you know, get your training finished and get a job and start contributing.”

These were Bill English’s comments in relation to student protests in Auckland and Wellington after recent budget announcements which included significant changes to student loans and student allowances. For about three days I was so angry about these comments I kept waking up in the middle of the night wanting to punch English in the mouth. I’m not used to having such physical reactions to a Politician’s comments. However I got thinking about why I was so angry and here are a few reasons.

English’s comments show a condescending disrespect for people who care about what happens in this country. They remind me of John Key’s comments in relation to the recent Hikoi protest march in Wellington about the partial sale of state owned assets when he said, “How many people did they have? Ok, where was it? [laughs] Well, OK, no I wasn’t aware of it.”  English and Key both try to downplay, mock or just ignore those people who disagree with their views and decisions.

English’s comment about ‘get your training finished and get a job and start contributing back to society’ remind me of a quote by Aronowitz and Cutler (Post Work: The Wages of Cybernation,New York: Routledge, 1998, p. 69). They write that ‘Late capitalist society is engaged in a long-term historical process of destroying job security, while the virtues of work are ironically and even more insistently being glorified’. The society being imagined and constructed by Key and English puts us all in an impossible situation. Their legislation and policies seek to break down the possibility for secure, stable employment, make education harder and harder to obtain (which is often the way to secure meaningful work), put us all in competition for non-existent jobs, while simultaneously suggesting that anyone who does not have a (paid) job is not a worthy member of society because they don’t ‘contribute’ taxes. This comment got me thinking about the contributions of postgraduate research (because this is what English seems intent on reducing). I started thinking about all the thesis and research projects, in science, literature, film, art, food science, geography and development studies. All this work, a lot of which is undertaken in collaboration with community organisations and businesses who effectively get ‘free’ labour in the form of postgraduate students. Postgraduate students who pay for the privilege of studying and ‘contributing’ back to society. I’m not suggesting that these students don’t get benefits from the process but what amazes me is that English could have such a limited view of what actually makes society function that he could even entertain the idea that students are not already ‘contributing’ to society.

Ultimately I don’t think I could meaningfully live in the society Key and English seem intent on constructing. Their limited ideas about what counts as a ‘contribution’ to society, about the value and role of education in society and their framing of who can speak to or criticise their views is both depressing and worrying. Their idea of the world is too small for me and ultimately I suspect, for most of us.

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