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The debate over Voluntary Student Membership
Voluntary student membership (VSM) sends a shiver down the spine of most students’ association presidents and exec members across the country. Having wrestled with voluntary student unionism – and for the most part won – in the mid-1990s, a law change in Australia last year and the possibility of a National Government being elected in 2008 means the VSM ghost has returned to haunt students’ associations.
Here’s how it works: every university and polytech in New Zealand has a students’ association – by law only one is recognised on each campus. With the exception of students at Auckland University, you will automatically become a member when you enrol. And the charge – at Vic $120 per year – is coat-tailed on to your student loan along with the money you pay in course fees. For this you are represented by VUWSA on various committees, and entitled to other services – such as advocacy, orientation and welfare.
In 1997 a bill championed by former MP Michael Laws was passed through Parliament, allowing voluntary student membership. While the numbers could not be mustered by Laws to remove compulsory membership of students’ associations altogether, the law saw a referenda held on each campus. As a result, Auckland University became voluntary by a slim majority of 120 votes. Waikato – which was already voluntary – remained so and it has since come back into the compulsory fold. So has Unitec, which became voluntary and then switched back after a referendum last year.
Compulsory unionism is something that really grinds ACT MP Heather Roy’s gears. “We believe in voluntary unionism across the board”, she says from the couch in her Parliamentary office. “It’s an anomaly as things exist at the moment. Nobody else is subject to compulsory unionism, and Auckland University isn’t.”
And she’s putting her money where her mouth is. Each political party is able to have a certain number of bills put forward by individual MPs – called Member’s Bills. So when a gap in ACT’s Member’s Bills schedule came up, she decided to put a bill abolishing compulsory unionism into the ballot. If it is drawn from the ballot, it will enter the legislative process and will become law if it gets sufficient support. Potentially, it could take months to go through the select committee process before it returns to the House.
That’s because support for the bill in its present form is not assured.
The Labour Party is opposed to voluntary association membership, and even the National Party is sounding rather iffy on the issue. National’s tertiary spokesperson Dr Paul Hutchinson had to check party policy on VSM when Salient initially contacted him. When he rang back 10 minutes later he was unwilling to commit to any firm line on moving to voluntary.
“We haven’t set out policy for the 2008 elections, but our view generally is that choice is preferable, and that a voluntary situation is what we would advocate.”
“Would we rescind the current legislation which allows for students to be able to decide whether or not they want to become voluntary by referendum?” he continues. “Look, I don’t think we’ve made a decision on that. I don’t think it would be a big priority by any means, but I think that our philosophical preference is for choice. And that might not necessarily translate to changing the law.”
Roy says that for ACT the law isn’t exactly an immediately pressing priority either, but it would be part of any potential coalition agreement with National if the two-MP party makes it back into Parliament after 2008. It would be “part of a package, if you like, of deals that we would want to see done”.
“I think it’s very interesting when you paint choice as a stark black and white thing”
New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations Co-President, Joey Randall, naturally, disagrees: “I think that a National government would have greater priorities. Our argument very much is that [the current law] is working, it’s not broken. Our argument is that a National government would and should have greater priorities in tertiary education than this.”
“We haven’t seen [referenda on the issue]”, he continues, “so there isn’t necessarily the support with students at the moment, as no one has actively tried to get that number of signatures. I would suggest that the majority of students would think that it’s probably working.”
But for Roy, it’s an ideological issue of choice and freedom of association. She argues that the current law – which allows for a referendum to be held every two years on the issue if 10 percent of students call for it, and for students to withdraw on the grounds of financial hardship and conscientious objection – doesn’t go far enough. The preface of the bill says, “the current legislation fails to guarantee individual students a satisfactory opportunity to withdraw from associations, and sets the bar too high for those who wish to make membership of a students’ association voluntary”.
However, in its current form, the bill would still enable students to switch back to voluntary by referenda.
“I think it’s very interesting when you paint choice as a stark black and white thing,” Randall says. “The reality is students don’t have the amount of choice that they do have under voluntary that they do have under compulsory.” He argues that student unions are different from other unions because of the advocacy services they provide.
Under a voluntary regime, for example, it may be more difficult for students’ associations to retain seats or choose who will represent their members on committees such as the University Council – as Roy’s bill would seek to repeal the section of the Education Act that rules that Councils must recognise one association per campus.
Furthermore, the experience of voluntary membership in New Zealand and Australia thus far has placed students’ associations at the mercy of their institutions. “From what we’ve seen in Australia”, says Randall, “a lot of unions are folding, a lot of their functions have been dramatically cut down – so a lot of staff have been reduced. Where those staff have been reduced are in the areas that are less likely to make money: advocacy and representation.” In other words, staff that are employed to make sure students aren’t getting a tough deal, investigating academic grievances and providing welfare services are the first to go when the belt is tightened.
In some universities in Australia where student unions have survived intact, it has been partially because the university has been providing the associations with money. Auckland has a similar agreement with university management, which Randall says from his experience as a former vice-president limited the ability of the association to stand up to the university. “Each year, the students’ association has a service agreement that they have to renew with the university, and there was always a bit of worry around what that would mean for their ability to advocate for students.”
“[AUSA] spends a huge amount of its money signing up members and trying to be attractive to students. What I think is more important is, are they able to deliver for students? Because while during Orientation it might seem great that you’re getting all this free stuff, what I think is more important is, are you getting effective advocacy and support?”
But Roy says that, if anything, voluntary unionism will give associations an incentive to move into the “real world.” “There are many people who think that student unions do a good job and that’s great. If they’re doing a good job and providing a good service then students will support them. But it shouldn’t be a matter of someone’s conscience whether they join or not. It’s the union’s job to go out and sell themselves. It’s their job to tell students what it is they have to offer.”
Which is perhaps where students’ associations may be going wrong.
VUWSA for example. Their motto is “ripping up mad shit since 1899.” And they’ve been ripping up some mad, mad shit. A drunken exec member doodled on the walls of the office, another exec member racked up thousands of dollars in calls to psychic hotlines – which amusingly enough couldn’t predict that she’d get caught – and threatened to kill other members. But while in public VUWSA seems like a bunch of morons, in the background academic grievances are sorted out, clubs operate, free bread is distributed, and our athletes didn’t do too badly at the recent Uni Games.
Roy is right when she says the VSM issue is about choice. But choice should be made by students, not by right wing politicians in the debating chamber who want to make students’ associations voluntary for almost purely ideological reasons.