This is an invited post by Hollie Russell for the Anthropologies Student Debt Issue (#20). Russell is a student at Victoria University of Wellington, about to start her Masters in anthropology with a student loan debt of $33,515.08. Her interests include politics, activism, and good coffee. Follow her on twitter @hollierussell8
In New Zealand, student debt is a pervasive and powerful feature of student life. Neoliberal user-pay ideologies led to the introduction of tuition fees in 1989 and the formation of the Student Loan Scheme in 1992. Through the scheme many New Zealand students have become increasingly indebted to the government in the form of financial loans. As of June 2012, 701,000 people had a student loan with Inland Revenue and the nominal value of loan balances was almost $13 billion (MoE 2012). My own loan balance sits at $33,515.08 which is just above average for postgraduate students.
The prevalence of student loans and the massive amount of debt owed by students in New Zealand has directly influenced student activism, but has also affected participation indirectly because of its influence on the priorities, energy and time students have had. It seems that, that which could potentially inspire students to action often discourages them.
One way student debt effects activism is by influencing student’s priorities. Due to debt, most students take on part-time work, which on top of assignments, revision, lectures, and tutorials, does not leave students with much spare time. Additionally, when students do have free time, they are more likely to spend it doing activities and joining clubs which will benefit their résumé, a result of the anxiety surrounding their debt. As Paul Comrie-Thomson (2010) points out “a prospective employer is going to be considerably more inclined to take on a member of the debating club than say a member of the University’s Marxist community”. Zoe Zuccotti, a student activist herself, echoes Comrie-Thomson’s idea, explaining the conflicting features of contemporary student life:
[we’re] now fee paying students and … most of us have part time jobs [but] we’re still fucking poor… It’s really hard to have no time because you are working, and you’re paying a shit load of money to be here so you wanna get the most out of it, but you’re also conscious of tens of thousands of dollars of debt, you know, so you wanna get through it quickly. And you’re still poor which is inherently kind of like a factor against taking action because you’re focused on survival, and you’re energy is really precious resource (Zuccotti in Russell 2013).
Studying these experiences and the larger social matrix they are embedded in demonstrates that debt is a violent feature of the contemporary University.
Violence operates along a continuum that spans structural, symbolic, and every day dimensions. Structural Violence refers to the political-economic organization of society that imposes conditions of physical and emotional distress on certain individuals or groups (Bourgois 2001). It is both entrenched and enduring. Debt is embedded in the structures of the New Zealand employment system – unless you have a payment exemption or are earning under the threshold of $19,000 twelve percent of your income goes towards loan repayments. It is also becoming embedded in the structures of our legal system with threats to arrest student loan defaulters living overseas if they return to New Zealand.
Moreover, debt is violent in the ways that it stops some students from meeting their basic needs: the increase in student debt, and the subsequent poverty, led to the creation of the VUWSA (Victoria University of Wellington Student’s Association) foodbank in 1998 and in 2011 686 food parcels were given out to students in need. Additionally, in 2012 the Graduate Longitudinal Study found that 13% of students were in serious financial hardship, and this year Auckland University’s student magazine, Craccum, reported that welfare services have been in constant and increasingly high demand. Furthermore, the neoliberal user-pays ideology that underlies many funding cuts means education is becoming increasingly unrealistic for lower socio-economic groups.
We can also see the concept of symbolic violence at play. Developed by Pierre Bourdieu (2000), symbolic violence looks at how domination operates on an intimate level linking immediate practices and feelings to social domination. The dominated individuals unwittingly consent to their own oppression by perceiving social order and inequality as natural and self-evident. This is illustrated in the widespread misunderstanding of the term ‘loan’ as money that one has to pay back. However, according to standard economic theory the lender, who is seen as directing their resources to a profitable investment, is meant to accept a certain degree of risk. This suggests that paying ones debt has moral reasoning rather than economic. Ideas about accepting ones responsibility, paying your dues and fulfilling your obligations are a powerful part of this, and in New Zealand the idea that one’s debt is one’s own problem is persistent, allowing the violence caused by debt to be embodied by individuals. It promotes the idea that students choose to take on debt, and thus any negative effects it has on their lifestyle is their own problem. This discourages them from participating in action that questions and resists it.
However, an increasing number of students worldwide have expressed their agency by harnessing that which has usually been thought of as oppressive and discouraging, and reconstructing it as inspirational. Debt, they say, should not alienate and oppress students; it should unite them and encourage them into collective action.
In 2012, when the provincial government of Quebec in Canada endeavored to raise tuition fees to the national average, hundreds of thousands of students organized and took part in strikes and demonstrations, calling for the government to abandon their proposals. The student movement succeeded and student fees in Quebec remained the lowest in Canada. In the US where student debt has surpassed one trillion dollars initiatives such as Strike Debt which operates with the motto ‘you are not a loan’, have been set up to encourage the elimination of all outstanding student debt and the retransformation of education into a public good. In 2010, central London was paralyzed by a movement of about 50,000 students protesting against increased tuition fees, whilst in Puerto Rico student protestors, demanded an alternative to budget cuts, and more transparency in university finances. They went on strike for several weeks, forcing the closure of ten out of eleven campuses.
Such students can be found in New Zealand too. In 2011, We Are The University, a collective of Auckland, Wellington, Waikato and Christchurch students, set out to form a national student movement that encouraged discussion and action around issues related to the higher education in New Zealand, in the hope of inspiring students into the type of action that was happening internationally. New Zealand students answered this call, blockading inner-city streets in Auckland to protest budget cuts that would disadvantage students, marching up Victoria University’s Hunter building stairs protesting funding cuts and occupying the over-bridge with a Box University which gave students the chance to create the type of University they wanted. The New Zealand Union of Student Associations followed suit encouraging New Zealand students to put their collective foot down, and declare education to be a public good open to all, not just to those who can already afford it. These examples demonstrate the agency of students who harness that which could potentially discourage activism and reconstruct it into an instrument of inspiration, encouraging students to take action.
My post isn’t intended to encourage you to participate in radical action – I do not expect everyone to start a protest group, to demonstrate or chant outside management headquarters, or to refuse payments of their student loan, although these things would be fantastic. It is, however, intended to make visible the very significant influence debt can have on a student’s choice to participate in activist activity – to recognize the reality and power of debt but also to demonstrate the agency of students who do not accept themselves as helpless victims of structural oppression.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 2000. Pascalian Meditations. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Bourgois, Philippe. 2001. ‘The Power of Violence in War and Peace; Post-Cold War Lessons from El Salvador’. In Ethnography, Vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 5-34.
Comrie-Thomson, Paul. 2010. ‘Strength, Unity and Solidarity: Collectives and Activism in New Zealand’. In Salient, September. Link: http://salient.org.nz/features/strength-unity-and-solidarity-collectives-and-activism-in-new-zealand
Ministry of Education (MoE). 2012. Student Loan Scheme; Annual Report October 2012. Ministry of Education: Wellington .
Russell, Hollie. 2013. ‘Surveillance and Success; Interviewing Student Activists at Victoria University of Wellington’, Cultural Anthropology Honours Thesis, Victoria University of Wellington.