Vouchers enrage students

August 29, 1997

New Zealand students have clashed with police in protests over proposed changes to tertiary education which could see the introduction of a voucher system.

A leaked ministry of education draft briefing paper includes proposals for student vouchers, greater competition between institutions, levelling the playing field between private and state tertiary institutions, and turning institutions into crown companies with government-appointed boards of directors.

The paper, prepared for the ministers of education and finance, is part of the policy development for the tertiary review green paper due for consultation early next month.

In a noisy demonstration in Wellington, a group of students, bearing a cardboard coffin carrying the slogan "RIP Public Education" was barred from entering the Treasury building by police armed with batons. The students had previously been banned from entering the grounds of parliment in a protest which student leaders said attracted more than 1,500 students. Police, however, put the figure at about 500.

In a similar protest, about 1,500 students rallied and marched in Auckland. One group occupied the offices of KPMG in protest at the consultants' involvement in the tertiary education review, but withdrew after the police were called to regroup outside Auckland University's registry building.

Earlier in the week, a group of about 300 students rallied at Otago University while the previous week an estimated 500 to 1,000 University of Canterbury students and staff held their protest at the proposed changes to tertiary education in the first significant protest there for three years.

Michael Gibbs, president of the New Zealand Students Association, said the protests were part of the joint Trans-Tasman week of action in which New Zealand students were "expressing solidarity" with their counterparts in Australia who were facing changes similar to those in New Zealand. "But they are also outraged that the government is planning to totally decimate the tertiary system in New Zealand," he said.

Despite the rhetoric being trotted out of vouchers being "student driven" and "student empowering," students did not see any advantages under a voucher system, Mr Gibbs said.

Mr Gibbs said that while the Australian government's first budget last year was "extremely draconian", experience in New Zealand showed there was "plenty of scope for things to get so much worse. By 2004, student debt in New Zealand will exceed our country's entire national debt. The system is completely inequitable and absolutely outrageous."

The proposals in the draft briefing paper also caused an immediate outcry from academics, vice chancellors and students as a further lurch to free market ideology.

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