Educational Fee Hikes, Student Protests, and Police Response

It is an interesting time to be a student of higher education, or perhaps an individual wanting to be a student of higher education. Across the world, universities are aligning themselves with conservative political entities as they raise student tuition and cut student support. In this post, David Mayeda reports on a recent student protest in Aotearoa/New Zealand, illustrating how state police continue to act in violent ways when faced with peaceful protests, and asks further, what future lies ahead for those who will not be able to afford a university education.

In Chile, hundreds of thousands of students and concerned citizens have been protesting for nearly a year, upset with the country’s highly privatized education system. As in many other regions, in Chile, if one lives in economic stress, securing a university education is highly unlikely. Likewise, the past few weeks in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, hundreds of thousands of protestors have been speaking out against proposed tuition hikes and newly imposed laws that restrict fundamental freedoms of assembly.

And as covered here in SociologyInFocus last year, University of California students were pepper sprayed by an officer while sitting peacefully in protest of tuition hikes at the system’s Davis campus, while a week before, Berkeley students were struck by police with batons. Below is some of the more benign footage I took on Friday 1 June at a University of Auckland student protest before being told to put away my iPad by police, or be arrested myself. With all these student protests and conflicts with police happening across the globe, what is going on?

To begin with, we need to ask how the government defines and conceptualizes higher education. On the one hand, higher education could follow a model more prevalent in Scandinavian countries, where higher and more equally distributed taxation substantially decreases the costs of university admission. As such, those who qualify academically to advance their education can typically do so, irrespective of their financial situation. Or on the other hand, education could be increasingly privatized, in which case it is funded more heavily by students’ tuition fees. In this model, obviously those who meet academic admission standards will also require a hefty personal bank account (or parents’ bank account) to foot those university bills.

Students across the globe are calling passionately for the former model, tired of ongoing tuition increases and cuts to student support. So when students protest, advocating for their rights, and future generations’ rights to a more equitable education, should they disassemble after police warn them with arrest threats and threats of violence? Should police – as official state representatives – have the authority to enact levels of violence when groups assemble to protest their discontent with official state policies? What if activists argue they are protesting against state discrimination?

In last Friday’s Auckland protests, the largely student activist-base was protesting the state’s recent decisions to (1) increase student loan repayment rates and (2) remove student allowances for postgraduate study. Such state-made decisions systematically discriminate against the poor, who will have a substantially harder time not only attaining a bachelor’s degree, but even more so, attaining a masters or doctoral degree. Even worse, these state policies further inhibit those ethnic groups that on average have lower annual incomes. In Aotearoa/New Zealand, these are the indigenous Maori and broader Pacific Islander communities, who are already severely under-represented in postgraduate studies.

Thus, when students are protesting against official governmental decisions that disproportionately harm the poor and already disadvantaged ethnic groups, students are fighting for minority rights. As such, one can more clearly see why students feel they have a right to assemble, resist police threats, and express their dissatisfaction with official state decisions.

One can also see more clearly why protestors are infuriated when large numbers of an overwhelmingly male police force work to physically intimidate activists. Perhaps the most egregious examples from Friday’s protest occurred when seated female protesters were manhandled in extremely inappropriate ways by small groups of male officers, who attempted to snatch them up after the protesters were kettled (cornered in a small space by larger groups of officers). Additionally, 43 students were arrested, most violently apprehended while physically seated, as seen in this absolutely brutal footage (click HERE), where a young woman is grabbed by her throat by officers while peacefully seated.

In light of these global trends in education and social activism, it is critical to make the following points. When the state makes broad-based social policies, citizens must be allowed an effective forum for disagreement. Further, when disagreement is made, particularly in non-violent form, the state must consider when, how, and if it sends in its “muscle” to shut down dissenting viewpoints. Finally, by sending in its official “muscle” to deter protestors who are demanding equity, the state can expect to find itself losing credibility and stuck in an ongoing conflict.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What do you think the police’s role should be in social protests, which aim to remain non-violent?
  2. What parameters should guide protestors’ actions when they dissent against state policies? What if the state is viewed as a despotic one?
  3. How should university administration handle student activism, in particular when students claim to be advocating for educational equity?
  4. How can state governments balance making public policies that may harm certain groups, with the reality that those groups will in turn communicate their displeasure with the state?
  5. Malcolm X once said, “I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem just to avoid violence.” How might this quote apply to many of the recent social movements we have seen students involved in across the globe?

All video footage taken by author. Click HERE and HERE for more video of the Auckland protests and police response.