The University of Auckland is continuing its trend of hiking fees and slashing services. In March they released a new plan for the Libraries and Learning Services, which included closing the three Creative Arts and Industries (CAI) specialty libraries; the libraries on two of their other campuses, Epsom and Tamaki; and cutting 45 full-time jobs.
The Architecture & Planning, Music & Dance, and Fine Arts libraries are facing closure with the collections merged with the General Library where possible and the rest in off-campus storage where students will have to wait up to 24 hours to receive their books.
CAI students, naturally, were outraged. Cass Power, a Fine Arts masters student, said that as the largest collection in the Southern Hemisphere, the library was one of her biggest drawcards to undertake her postgrad at Elam. The news of the library closure was devastating as “not only has some of my greatest advancements in my work happened here but...[this] is a decision that will affect all our creative industries heavily.”
Rachel Ashby, a Fine Arts graduate and organiser of the campaign ‘Save the Fine Arts Library’ told RNZ that the library is a community access point and is used by artists throughout Auckland, not just students.
In response to the plan, 89 students and staff occupied the Fine Arts library on the 27th of March demanding to speak to the Vice Chancellor, Stuart McCutcheon. Instead, the University sent the police. Around 1,000 students rallying outside the Vice Chancellor’s office received the same response. AUSA (Auckland University Students’ Association) had to give submissions on the plan to the Head of Security and within minutes. One police car turned into two along with two paddy-wagons, motorbikes and 20 plus police officers.
The police presence was an apt reminder that tertiary students are locked out of their education. We become indebted and foreclose our future to undertake study. In an open letter published in NZ Herald, ten current and former English professors write that universities, which were once somewhat democratic spaces, are now corporations, and Vice Chancellors are simply highly educated CEOs, with a pay package to match. Stuart McCutcheon made between $710,000 and $719,999 last year, yet they need to close the CAI libraries and fire stuff to “cut costs.”
Both AUSA and the Save The Fine Arts Library campaign are situating these closures within a wider undervaluation of the arts in general. But if this ethics issue has demonstrated anything, it should be that the Arts is important. We need well designed cities, we need art, music and dance that transcends the 9-5 grind, and we need to look at history to figure out the best way forward. Yet, the open letter writes, “once flourishing departments have been ruthlessly downsized,” programmes are being axed and “so-called small group tutorials” can have up to 30 students. Engineering, science, business and medicine all get new $200+ million buildings whilst the human science building crumbles.
Ultimately, universities are businesses and businesses don’t want to encourage thinking that challenges the status quo. It is people who design robots, research cancer prevention, and write code. Arts is there to grapple with the seemingly impossible question of how seven billion people can best work together, and businesses are afraid that if enough of us realise that the current economic conditions, where a few are lining their pockets at the expense of the many, isn’t the best way they’re going to lose the top spot.
Education is not a business and the arts are more important than ever. We must take radical action to ensure the university is a place of academic freedom, of reimagining our world. “I walk[ed] by the library today,” Cass writes, “with placards sitting outside the door from our recent rally but dare not be moved.” May we stand united in opposition to the closures and reclaim our universities so they dare not move us, either.