Over the past 20-odd years I have regularly conducted informal and unscientific ‘snap polls’ of my undergraduate students as to how they view New Zealand and how they feel about what is happening. My reason for doing so is two-fold. Firstly, tertiary students are, on the face the of it, ‘ the winners’ of the New Zealand education system. They have successfully navigated through high school, made it to university and, by the time they have made it to third year are looking, in the main, to graduate into the workforce. They have come to university to gain skills and knowledge to enable them to gain employment and, usually secondly, to gain the intangible knowledge and skills offered (hopefully still) by higher education. These are a collection of students from across the humanities, social sciences and law and also, over the past few years, from the large business and culture course I teach into. Secondly, such tertiary educated young people are the social and economic future of the country. There is an often unacknowledged social contract at work whereby they gain a heavily subsidized education with the implicit expectation that they will become productive tax-paying members of society that also, through skills and education, will add to the social and economic capital of the Nation.
As I remind my classes, a central question of modern life is whether society is done by and with you, done to you – or done for you? Traditionally, those who experience tertiary education will be those who society is done for and they will tend to be the ones who society is done by and with. In short, tertiary students are both an important barometer of how society is functioning and, to mix metaphors, are also a particular canary in the coal mine of society. Despite the widespread moral panics regarding wokeism and cultural Marxism, in New Zealand most tertiary students – and staff – exist well clear of these. These moral panics are, if anything, the local version of Cavafy’s great poem Waiting for the barbarians. We should not confuse noise for real impact; while there are very, very few Marxists (cultural or otherwise) left in the New Zealand tertiary system. In the main, the vast majority of tertiary students are down to earth, pragmatic, engaged and hard-working young people, here to get a degree so they can get the best job and life possible.
This is why I have regularly informally ‘snap-polled’ them over the past two decades. How they think and what they feel has been remarkably consistent as to how the society and the economy operates and, in election years, has tended to give a very clear sense of how things are going to go. To explain regarding election years, we need to remember that tertiary students, as well as their age and friend cohorts, exist within families and workplaces; most are in regular discursive contact with their families from across the country and most have some sort of part-time employment. Therefore they have a diverse set of influences upon their political framing. Usually, it seems, most will vote either in line with their family background and political choices or in line with the views of their friendship cohorts. The other thing to remember is that most tertiary students are, like the rest of New Zealand population, far more politically opinionated than politically engaged. That is, they have political opinions but this does not tend to ever translate into political party membership.
So, what have I found this year? The first is that only a very tiny proportion, from first year to third year, see any sort of future for them in New Zealand over the next 5-10 years. It is not just, as some readers may wish to state, that these students wish to leave Christchurch. The fact is, they overwhelmingly want to leave New Zealand, citing housing, the cost of living and higher wages and more opportunities overseas as the central drivers. I have never encountered such a widespread and deep sense of despair and despondency across tertiary educated young people as I have in the first 6 months of this year. The covid years came close but there was still a residual hope that things could – or would – get better. This has collapsed. In short New Zealand had better prepare for a significant socio-economic brain drain.
In election years I ask: ‘do you know who you will vote for’? Usually, the vast majority state they know. I don’t ask directly, but usually there is then a volunteering that tends to be centre left, then Greens, and then centre right. During the Key years far more were willing to state a National vote; just as Ardern was wildly popular in 2020. This year almost everyone stated they do not know who they will – op rather- can vote for. In this they mimic my 83 year old mother, a lifetime Labour voter and one-time Labour Party member.