Dr Liz Gordon: Battles for education


I spent the weekend in Dunedin at a hui on the Otago University campus. Even though I never studied there, it resonates with history for me.

It was the early 1990s and the Alliance was the only political party opposing the imposition of tertiary fees. Students were up in arms at the burden that had been imposed on them by the Labour Government and then by the National Government.

Lockwood Smith as Minister had promised in the 1990 election that National would abolish the new tertiary fee.  And he did, but then required the universities to charge instead.

This was a disaster and was the beginning of the clever trick of devolving responsibilities to institutions while underfunding them. We have all paid the price for that.

We used to have such fun at Otago.  There was the famous occasion when Lockwood Smith chose to escape out of a back window rather than face the madding crowds out front. He got caught – a moment hopefully of shame for him.

Otago were not always their own best friends. On one occasion the Council was meeting to decide fees and Jim Anderton went down to support the students. The Council trespassed him, which was pretty daft as it was at the height of his popularity and brought a lot of unwanted attention onto the university.

There was one famous interview by Paul Holmes with the then Chancellor, a Mastermind winner called Judith Medlicott. I understand she was a very interesting person, but I only knew her for that botched interview.

If I remember correctly, that crucial meeting of the Council was cancelled, as well as Jim being booted off campus.  Judith was asked why.  I can still remember her reply.

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“The students were cluttering up the stairwell and they wouldn’t move. It was a safety issue”.

It was too! There was only one entry and exit point from the Council chamber, and the students were settling in for a bit of a siege.

It was all very exciting times. Eventually, however, students became ground down by the weight of fees and responsibilities and their activism quieted.  The moment of being able to reclaim fully funded tertiary education was lost, with dreadful consequences.

A few years later I chaired a select committee inquiry into student fees and loans. We heard excellent arguments from people about the effects of debt on young people, but again the Alliance was the only party opposing debt so nothing happened. I did get to meet an outstanding young man, Andrew Campbell, then President of the Otago University Students Association.  He was such a strong advocate for students and I named him St. Andrew. He is now Jacinta’s chief of staff.

So the ghosts of protests past all come at me as I walk across the lovely campus, enjoying the autumn sun. Kia kaha, Otago.


Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.


  1. It is a bloody disgrace that students have these fees foisted on them. We can and should be seeing that University and polytech education is fee free. We can afford it but the politicians lack the guts to do this and numerous other things.

  2. People have forgotten that Generation X in NZ which were the first to pay tertiary fees which were based on eye watering interest rates at the time, compounding daily. I was paying something like 10% interest on my student loan compounding daily, while studying. At the time, many students thought that this law would be repealed and they would never have to pay it back. They were wrong.

    This is not even mentioned, forgotten or conveniently ignored in modern discourse. Eventually the government changed the rules that interest was not compounding daily while you were studying and now the first year is free.

    But a tertiary generation were screwed, some who will never be able to pay it back.

  3. Worth reading some great insights to what has gone wrong in NZ. This is what many of my generation went through but seems to have been mostly written out of history.

    Ruth, Roger and Me
    Debts and Legacies
    Andrew Dean

    Another note on academic decline.

    An ‘onslaught of shock and awe’ was supposed to transform Unitec. Instead it sent it into a dive

    Leading to NZ having the world largest brain drain by 2010.

    NZ replaced their indebted workers with neoliberal ‘bums on seats’ mentality in 2016

    MUST READ: Migration, chefs and essential skills

    Then came the identity police joining the right wingers to tell everybody that neoliberalism was all a great idea and all the problems are easily overcome by doing more of the same and don’t think too hard about it!

  4. Unfortunately no political party seems interested in restoring our university system to one based entirely on merit, rather than on money. Under the Unicorp model, students have been thoroughly clientized, and managers’ priority is to maximize bums on seats, not academic quality.

    Most on the political right seem to think that user-pays education is a great idea. The contemporary “left” is, if anything, even worse – their priority is the witch-hunt for “systemic and institutional racism” rather than throwing out the neoliberal model.

  5. What Covid what a monster,death more than Sars,eh! capitalism is the serious bus for humanities extinction,exploit and continuous.

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