VSM: Very silly and malicious

This is my latest Auckland University Craccum magazine article.

VSM. Three little letters that stand for Very Silly and Malicious, as well as Voluntary Student Membership. Sir Roger Douglas has a Bill to ram through VSM and this will have a massive negative impact across the country.

The Bill, if passed, would take away students’ rights to choose the system best for them. It will make all university and polytechnic student associations voluntary—you would need to opt-in at the beginning of each year and use your own scarce money (as opposed to currently putting it on the student loan) to pay a membership fee. You don’t need to be a fortune-teller to predict most students can’t or won’t join. This will gut associations as we’ve seen happen in Australia.

At the moment most student associations, except Auckland University Student Association (AUSA), have universal membership: students are members unless they choose to opt-out.

Supposedly, the Bill aims to uphold a student’s right to freedom of association, by ensuring that no student is compelled to join an association. That you are compelled to join is a myth: at the moment any student can—though a tiny fraction actually do—choose to opt-out of their student association membership. In fact, the Human Rights Commission considers that students’ freedom to not associate is protected sufficiently under the current Act.

The Bill, if passed, and I hope it isn’t, takes away the compromise agreement reached in 2001 which allowed students to choose the system best for their campus. Students could force a referendum on the issue if 10% of students signed a petition. It’s somewhat ironic that a septuagenarian MP is telling students how to organise themselves without giving them the choice in the name of freedom of association.

For the last few months I’ve heard around 120 oral submissions on the Bill because I sit on the Education Select Committee. I’m sure more people would like politicians if media cameras filmed Committees as opposed to the conflict-driven Question Time – the public might even rate us higher than sex workers in terms of trust! Select Committees are small, regular meeting, where groups of 9-odd MPs from various parties get together and it is where the real work gets done.

The message from submitters has been very clear. From those concerned about clubs and the viability of student media; through to Olympians who got their start with a grant to attend Uni Games and sexual abuse survivors, the message has been that we need strong student associations, not the emasculated, poor and dying ones this Bill will deliver. The overwhelming majority have been opposed to the Bill and have cited associations’ services, advocacy and representation as the major reasons to support the status quo.

Even if you’re not aware, your association does a hell of a lot for you. They fund things like support for clubs, contribute to the magazine, run O-Week and sporting events like the Uni games. All good stuff that make Uni a nice place to be.

Perhaps more important, though less visible to those not in need, is the advocacy role that associations play. If you have trouble with a lecturer, an enrolment problem or face harassment, your association is there for you with professional support available. Likewise if you, like I did when I was a student, needed to use the food bank associations help you out here as well. Many students never think they’ll need advocacy support or would pay voluntarily in advance, but are glad it’s there when they do.

Your association also represents you and your interests to the university. It’s so important to have an independent student voice. Your association runs the class rep system, and all the other jobs universities can’t do because they have a vested interest, as well as sit on numerous committees and meetings raising the student position.

AUSA is the only VSM association in NZ. AUSA shows that associations can survive with VSM but there are costs. In 1999, Auckland students decided to go voluntary, and again in 2001 and 2003 held referenda to stay with the opt-in system. After AUSA’s membership numbers crashed to 2,700 out of 31,502 students in 2002, the Executive decided to charge a zero membership fee. This move has built up membership numbers to 20,000 at the time of writing. AUSA survives financially because it has assets earning an income and because it has a contract with the University to provide services which the university funds via its compulsory Student Services Levy.

One of the best quotes I heard from Auckland submitters was that AUSA survives despite, not because, of VSM. AUSA says their ability to provide independent and effective services has been drastically compromised under VSM.

If this Bill passes, most associations will need to go down a contract path because they don’t have assets to fund their services. Also, it is a simple fact that most students don’t have a hundred odd dollars burning a hole in their pocket at the beginning of the year. This means students still pay via the Student Services Levy, but don’t get to choose how much, how it’s allocated and in all likelihood will pay more because associations can access free voluntary labour. As AUSA have found out it also gives the uni a pretty big stick to wave over the association to keep it pliant.

One example shows the importance of truly independent associations. Many institutions fear true student course grading, and even if they undertake it, they rarely publish the data. Associations, acting on students behalves, are free to publish students’ views; however, if funded by institutions directly this can be halted.

Douglas’ Bill is a badly drafted law. It has been opposed by students, associations, community groups and only supported by an ideological few.

Why has the Government supported it to date? I believe it is part of Minister of Tertiary Education Steven Joyce’s plan to use it as a diversion, a smokescreen, to detract attention away from the terrible changes he’s forcing on the tertiary education sector.

Douglas is telling you how you should be organised. He is taking away your choice. In the process of doing this he is destroying the services you rely on—the advocacy and representation—all in the name of a very debateable interpretation of ‘freedom of association’.

27 Comments Posted

  1. Well said harvey…yes the leftist thuggery that is compulsory student membership is morally indefensible…and because of that its also inpractical…..you get poor service,money rip offs and a featherbed for lazy lefties to tit suck while they earn their Labour/Green stripes.

    If students won’t support something voluntaraly it should not exist.Obviously they see it is of no value to them.

    Compulsory SA’s may do some good for students….but then so did the compulsory Hitler Youth organization also preform many acts of work to benefit German civil society….but is anyone going to suggest that somehow justified and balanced the “other” aspects of this body…?

    ( Godwins law noted and ignored as irrelavant…)

  2. So Gareth you support 18 yr olds being able to buy alcohol but you don’t think 48 yr olds should be able to decide whether or not they join an incorporated society?

    Let’s face it, compulsory student associations are a lefty’s wet dream. They’re organisations that don’t have to provide anything of value, they get guaranteed income regardless of how they perform and to top it off they end up pushing left wing views that are usually in complete contrast to the views of people they claim to represent.

    The Greens support compulsory membership because it serves their political purposes. I’d hope a party that makes such a big deal about human rights would approach this issue on the matter of principle. But when there’s millions of bucks coming in to prop up student associations that are often little more than branch offices of the Greens I guess you’re prepared to forget about principles.

    And if you’re arguing that compulsory student associations are justified because they do ‘good things’, then why don’t you argue for compulsory membership of all the other groups doing ‘good things’ – like churches and charities? Compulsory membership of the Salvation Army anyone?

  3. Interesting that no one is trying to claim (this time around) that associations are accountable to their members.

    Vic took care of that. Yay for bogus quorum counts!

  4. @sapient,

    I dunno, student levies are pretty much the same as subscription fees except you get a 2gb data band or so out of it I actually doubt a uni run student association would be all that much more expensive in total

  5. Well Sap I did not give a frack over the last two years I was at Waikato because I was quite OK with what the student Union were doing and supporting them with my sub. If I was not I would have gone to meetings.

  6. Kerry,

    Students just don’t give a frack. They are there to study. I know that here, we have to offer subway to even make quorum and even then it often fails.

    The votes cannot be taken as indicative in the least.

    That said, it would be more expensive to have the uni run it and still compulsory in terms of fees, might as well keep the unions as is.

  7. and as I said not a reason for CSM though – Student apathy shouldn’t be a reason for not stealing student money and speaking on their behalf, the UCSA is an anomaly however as it does not charge subscription fees therefore does not steal money – it does however have significant influence over the expenditure of the 600$ student levy which it supported so…yeah. (also the guy whose campaign blurb focused on attacking the VSM Bill came 2 from bottom and he was a previous year exec)
    I’m happy to wait and see what the Committee and what the House decide in October or the 30th rather

  8. @qot

    Around 12% at Cant this year based on my estimates.
    and as my submission suggested student apathy is no reason to keep CSM 🙂 ..putting aside the human rights issues

  9. I’m sorry, stephen, but it always makes me laugh when people complain about incompetent/biased/foolish student executives. Given the turnout for SA elections at the two campuses I’ve attended (Auckland and VUW) is usually ridiculously low, what do people expect? Much as we pay tax/rates whether we vote in general/local elections or not, if you don’t vote in SA elections of course you’re going to get an exec loaded with vested interests and idiots.

    The one exception to the low-turnout rule, hilariously, was at VUW when a group of Young Act folk decided to run on a “slash everything and institute user pays” platform … and were utterly squashed.

  10. Call Douglas’ VSM Bill what it is Gareth – the Freeloader’s Bill! Student associations have always had provision for those who object on religious or philosophical grounds to SA’s to not be members, but with their SA fee paid to a charity. That avoids people quitting just to get their SA fee back. If LibertyScott didn’t get this, he must have made a poor case, or had a toxic exec deciding on it.

    The myth pushed by VSM advocates is that students will be able to ‘choose’ where they spend their money. Of course, it’s false – as noted, university and poytech managers just charge a student services levy of their own (always about the same amount as before) to replace services lost when a SA goes voluntary.

    So there is no financial gain to students from VSM, and no choice over where they spend their cash. And with the opt-out membership provision, there is free choice on the membership itself. So VSM is one giant pack of lies from start to finish.

    It is notable that it is the same right-wing capitalists who want VSM, who have always opposed human rights, especially the right to have union representation, because it cuts into their mates’ profits.

  11. Sure samiuela,

    But there’s another issue you’ve missed.

    For an individual, it’s easy to tell who decides what is best for the individual. Themselves.

    How do you decide that for a collective? A dictatorship? An executive elected by the 5% who bother to vote? Majorities in referendums?

    Let me give you an example:

    You says,

    “On the other hand, when an individual’s actions detrimentally affect the well being of the wider group, then the group is most important.”

    Well, it happens to be my belief that the fact that everyone not joining ACT on Campus and giving us $150 a year with which to campaign and help students with is detrimental to the collective of students. I genuinely believe (not just hypothetically for this argument) that everyone would be better off if they were ACT on Campus members.

    So why should they get to decide as individuals whether they are members?

  12. it’s ridiculous for the Green party to shun one area of Human rights abuse and attack others- picking and choosing human rights concerns…I don’t think a party who stands on a human rights platform on a regular basis has that right to pick and choose what ones to follow and to re-define them to suit their own agenda . VSM is needed so students don’t get their money taken from them by foolish SA Executives. I’ve already made my submission however I think one thing to be added…I do think it is sad that committee members such as yourself (even as a pro tempore), Trevor Mallard and even yes Sir Roger are talking about this issue outside the committee rooms- it will put off people presenting in future to committees if they feel their voice won’t be noted. I support VSM and hope it will pass the House in October

  13. Peteremcc,

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Of course its not a black and white thing (the individual or the collective), but how much weight you give to the rights of the individual and the rights of the collective.

    My personal view is that when an individual’s actions do not affect the collective, then individual rights are very important. On the other hand, when an individual’s actions detrimentally affect the well being of the wider group, then the group is most important.

    Of course, even deciding whether an individual’s action affects the wider community is a tricky thing. For example, a fundamentalist Christian is likely to think the mere knowledge that two people of the same gender live together is detrimental to the well being of the community, others will say it is no one else’s business.

    Where do you stand on the issue of individual versus collective rights?

  14. Sudden brainwave: it’s not “compulsory” student union membership with all the nasty fascistic overtones that has. It’s automatic student union membership, since, as the post actually says in words apparently invisible to free marketeers’ eyes, any student can—though a tiny fraction actually do—choose to opt-out of their student association membership. Just like Kiwisaver, though I suspect that’s a comparison few righties will enjoy.

  15. All comes down to who you think “students” are.

    Do you think they’re individuals who should be able to make the decision for themselves?

    Or do you think they’re a collective who should be able to make the decision as a collective on a majoritarian basis.

    The greens are collectivists and so it’s not really any surprise they think the will and rights of the collective should overrule the will and rights of the individual.

  16. The Bill, if passed, would take away students’ rights to choose the system best for them. It will make all university and polytechnic student associations voluntary—you would need to opt-in at the beginning of each year

    Um, how is forcing people to be members “choice”..?

  17. Although I know of the massive repercussions it will have, I think I do support VSM. It may be one of the very few areas where I disagree with the Greens, but it is my view that no one should be forced to be a member of any organisation or union.

  18. Gareth, parliament is like that because of television and politicians hoping to appear on the evening news. If select committees were televised, they would also become a circus.

  19. Douglas is an embarrassment. Sitting “hearing” submitters, and not paying attention at all. The Christchurch experience was that he just sat there catching up on his emails instead of listening and interacting with the submitters.

  20. Universities shouldn’t fund student associations, students should have the same freedoms as the rest of us to not be represented by organisations who they don’t want to represent them.

    In the case of the University of Auckland, they choose to fund the student association largely on the basis that the University feels that it is better for the student association to provide certain services.

    I tried to opt out of student union membership years ago on the grounds of conscientious objection, but it was rejected as being spurious.

    And that is why I am happy with the current situation at the University of Auckland – I can choose to be a member of the students association, and I can equally choose not to be a member of the students association.

  21. It is a funny world for some to think that making representative associations entirely voluntary is somehow taking away from the freedom of students.

    There is no such thing as a collective will of students, students are not an amorphous body who can all be represented fairly by one entity.

    The philosophy behind compulsory student union membership is the same as compulsory workplace union membership or indeed the Leninist view that only one political party is needed to represent “the people” (anything else is against them).

    I tried to opt out of student union membership years ago on the grounds of conscientious objection, but it was rejected as being spurious. Had I believed in some ghost it might have worked, but it is a joke to think this truly exists.

    Universities shouldn’t fund student associations, students should have the same freedoms as the rest of us to not be represented by organisations who they don’t want to represent them.

    It’s funny how a party that claims to care about civil liberties quite happily points the other way when it is suits its own partisan interests.

  22. Why doesn’t Douglass mind his own damn3d business!!!There should be an age limit to which politicians should retire!

    Roger Douglass is well past the used by date.

    What a miserable way to spend his ‘retirement?’ why doesn’t he go fishing or play golf, surely disenfranchising student associations can’t be a very leisurely activity before the grave?

    He’s an evil old man

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