Hipkins faces grilling from students over University of Otago staff cuts

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Prime Minister Chris Hipkins . . . "The universities make their own decisions about how they manage their finances so it's not something we can intervene on as a government." Image: Tess Brunton/RNZ

By Tess Brunton, RNZ News reporter

New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins faced a grilling by University of Otago students during his trip to Ōtepoti yesterday.

Students, staff and community members have been fighting against the university’s request for staff to consider redundancies in a bid to save $60 million.

But the students did not keep their questions to cuts alone.

Hipkins got a mixed welcome with protesters chanting and asking for selfies with the prime minister.

Associate professor of politics Brian Roper said staff were already finding out that their courses were being cut and they were losing their jobs.

“I bumped into one of them. She was in tears, she’s absolutely distraught. What this government is doing to our universities is scandalous,” he said.

“Five out of eight of them are currently experiencing severe financial difficulties because of a chronic underfunding from this government.”

Declining enrolments
Hipkins said declining enrolments meant universities across the motu were finding ways to rebalance their books.

“I know that’s a really uncertain and uncomfortable time for the staff. The universities make their own decisions about how they manage their finances so it’s not something we can intervene on as a government.”

The prime minister attended a student association forum yesterday afternoon, making a speech before opening the floor to questions from students.

“I was just in a lecture where we’re doing course evaluations and my lecturer was begging the class to give a positive evaluation to keep her job. We have a $60 million budget hole, why can’t you just fix it?”

Someone taking a selfie with Prime Minister Chris Hipkins during his visit the University of Otago on 2 June 2023.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins got a mixed reception – with some protesting and others asking for selfies. Image: Tess Brunton/RNZ

Hipkins said there was a lot of demand on the government’s coffers, and they could not cover all of the requests they got.

He offered no policy promises, telling students they would hear them well before the election

“Our rent has increased, the university’s spiralling down. I’m just thinking why on Earth should I be voting for you?” one student asked.

‘Most political answer’
Hipkins said: “I’ll probably give you the most political answer I’ve given you so far. The biggest increase in tertiary funding that we’ve seen in 20 years in this year’s Budget versus a government that actually wants to do the opposite of that.”

But his responses in regards to the National Party did not go over well with multiple students telling him to stop the blame game or saying what the opposing party would not give them, and instead tell them his policies and what he would deliver.

Protesters at the University of Otago during Prime Minister Chris Hipkins' visit to the campus, including the yellow-suited monkey who has become a feature of recent university protests.
Protesters, including the yellow-suited monkey, at Otago University yesterday. Image: Tess Brunton/RNZ

A yellow-suited monkey has become a feature of recent university protests — they want the government to bail out the university to save jobs and courses.

“I have a banana addiction as a monkey, but my Bachelor of Arts is being cut and I think that’s appalling. Millions and millions of dollars are sitting there which could bail out our university for underfunding, but he’s just not spending it, which he needs to,” the monkey said.

Earlier in the day, Hipkins toured KiwiRail’s Hillside Workshops in South Dunedin as it works on a multi-million dollar redevelopment to build a new wagon assembly facility.

Chris Hipkins (left) and ministers with Balancing Monkey Games co-founder Sam Barham (seated) at the firm's gaming development studio in Dunedin.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins (left) and ministers with Balancing Monkey Games co-founder Sam Barham (seated). Image: Tess Brunton/RNZ

Then he swapped a hard hat for a console, visiting three gaming development studios, after announcing $160 million to set up a 20 percent rebate for game developers in the recent Budget.

Hopeful over rebate
Balancing Monkey Games co-founder Sam Barham is hopeful the rebate could help them hire more staff and continue to do what they love.

Currently, he said developers made most of their money straight after releasing a game and then lived off that until they released another one.

“It makes a huge difference in terms of our ability to survive. It’s not the least risky business out there so we’ve got to think about how do we keep going. Our main aim is to still be doing this. It’s a thing that we love doing.”

The details of the rebate will be consulted on, but up to $3 million in rebate funding is likely to be up for grabs per year for individual studios.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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