Gareth Hughes

VSM: Very silly and malicious

by Gareth Hughes

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’.

Published in Environment & Resource Management by Gareth Hughes on Tue, August 24th, 2010   

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