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The Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Dr Sylvia Nissen

On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Dr Sylvia Nissen

Are we seeing a new dawn of student activism in New Zealand?

Despite a hedonistic and, at times, boozy image – New Zealand has had a rich history of student protest.

Dr Sylvia Nissen has just written a book titled ‘Student Political Action in New Zealand’. Simon Shepherd asked Dr Nissen if major issues like climate change and free speech are stimulating a resurgence in student movements.

Sylvia Nissen: Absolutely. It’s a really exciting time in student politics. And it’s really important to remember that it’s only a few years ago that the main ways that we’re talking about these students is apathetic.

Simon Shepherd: Right. But that’s not the case still? You don’t think so?

It’s not still, and it wasn’t then either. And that’s a key part of what this book really does is look beneath the surface of the perceived apathy and look at some of the aspirations and frustrations of those students.

All right. Well, we’ll get to those specifics in a moment. But at the moment what we’re seeing, this resurgence, are they actually affecting real change?

I think absolutely in the sense that it’s really reimagining power and who has it and trying to shift that balance of power. One of the things when I spoke to students as part of this research is students did feel really excluded from politics and political institutions and organisations, and I think a big part of the activism we’re seeing coming through now is trying to shift that balance of power.

Right. So, in terms of change, we’ve seen examples where protestors have objected to certain people having speaking rights - like Don Brash - and they’ve been de-platformed, in a way. Is that real change or is that just outrage?

I think it’s manifested in many different ways. We’ve also got students who have been protesting to get New Zealand history taught in schools or what’s happened in Ihumātao or what’s happened with the climate strikes. So, see it as a broad platform of activism.

Why do you think that activism is actually good for society, then?

Because just look back. So many of the substantial changes we’ve had in New Zealand and globally have been driven by activists and activism.

What’s wrong with students just studying? Is there an expectation that they have to be active?

I think a lot of the expectation is actually imposed by us and a lot of our assumptions about what students are. The idea of a student activist is actually a relatively recent one. We only really started putting those words together from the 1960s. Nevertheless, it’s a really important part of becoming a student, in a way now. And a lot of the students, when I interviewed them, spoke about how they thought they went to university wanting to be part of that type of activism.

But some of those people that you talked to said that they couldn’t really feel like they could take part, so what are some of the things and were and are holding students back from being involved?

There are many challenges, and they are still very much present. I undertook these interviews in 2015, but I think these still very much exist. And one of the biggest ones is student debt. And we often talk about student debt as something that affects students either before study or after study, but a lot of my work is really looking at those effects during study. They’re really significant for political action, but also it’s a wellbeing issue for student wellbeing.

So, why during study is debt an issue? What is it about having debt during study that’s holding these people back from being involved?

So, you end up with, really, two tiers of participation. So, some students are able to fully participate academically, socially and politically, but others aren’t because they’re working very, very long hours in addition to study or care work to try and make ends meet. And those are circumstances that haven’t been there previously. And in a way, when it comes to debt, we’re driving blind. We haven’t really been doing the work that we need to do to look at those effects during study. So, there’s a lot of work to be done there.

OK. So, you suggest four things in your book to improve student political participation. The first one is lower the voting age to what, and why would you want to do that?

Yeah. So, the age that’s usually given is to lower to 16 - there’s arguments to be made to go even lower - and there’s lots of fantastic reasons out there why you should lower the voting age. But from the perspective of the students I interviewed in my book, it’s simply by the time students had got to university, they were very disillusioned with the extent to which their voice mattered to those in parliament. And lowering the voting age to 16 or 15 or however low you want to go, it’s a really powerful signal to say that your voice matters.

The counter-argument of that is that these people have not had life experience, so why should we be listening to them?

Yes. And I’d say pick up a copy and read the perspectives of the students I was speaking to because it’s very hard to listen to what they are saying - to genuinely listen to it – and be able to say that they don’t know much about these issues.

OK. What about the political parties and they political institutions themselves? Do they see students as being a valuable asset or just manpower or womanpower?

I’d like to think they do. But certainly, a lot of the students I spoke to were quite disillusioned with the extent to which they felt they mattered to these political parties. And so, I think there is just a real case for taking a hard at ourselves.

So, what should the political parties be doing? Should they be listening to them all?

Just listen.

Just listen.

It seems basic, but it’s not done enough.

OK. Also, is there a business wall there from the tertiary institutions’ perspective? Is student activism risky to a bottom line of a competitive university?

There is an aspect of that in there. But I think as well universities are amazing places for bringing people together, and they’re not necessarily doing that as much as they could be anymore. And one of the really concerning things that I found interviewing students was the number of students who told me, ‘I haven’t made friends until my third year.’


Because they’re working long hours or there has been cuts to field work and tutorial, which means they go to these large lectures and then they go home. There’s not cheap transport. So, it’s all the basic things, but they’re increasingly lacking. And so, there is really important work to be done by universities to better support students in this space.

Just finally, you talked a lot about how student debt holds them back. If you got rid of that debt, would we see a rise in political activism?

It’s not a silver bullet, so I don’t know. But it’s a wellbeing issue, and we’re not treating it that way. At the moment, we’re treating it as something that students will pay off in the long run and they’ll be fine, but they’re not necessarily. And one of the most concerning things I found - apart from not making friends until their third year – was I had two thirds of students saying that they were worried about the wellbeing of their peers. We’ve got a problem, and we need to start treating it seriously.

OK. Sylvia Nissen, thank you very much for your time this morning.

Thank you, Simon.

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