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May 7, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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Giving up the ghost?

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.

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About the Author ()

Nicola Kean: feature writer, philanthropist, womanly woman. Nicola is the smallest member of the Salient team, but eats really large pieces of lasagne. Favourites include 80s music, the scent of fresh pine needles and long walks on the beach.

Comments (19)

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  1. Greg Edwards says:

    The Bill which passed in the 1990s wasn’t sponored by Michael laws. It was sponsored by Tony Steel. Michael laws wasn’t even an MP when it passed.

  2. Umm says:

    Mr. Edwards please learn to read. “In 1997 a bill championed by former MP Michael Laws was passed through Parliament”. Note the “former”?

    “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.” – we’ll just ignore that select committees have up to 6 months to debate a bill, and, even on non-controversial matters, usually use all 6 months.

  3. Stuart says:

    Sorry Umm,

    You are wrong – Michael Laws’ 1994 bill was nothing like the 1997 Tony Steel bill. As both Laws and Steel are no longer MPs they both can be refered to as “former”.

    Laws wasn’t championing the Steel bill, in fact it was NZ First that ammened it to force referendums, rather than true freedom of association.

  4. $4 000 that cTo start with the research behind this article is, to put it mildly, substandard. This is shown by the factual inacuracies in the article. In actual fact, as Greg Edwards mentioned earlier, the bill resulting in referendums was introduced by Tony Steel, not Micheal Laws.
    Secondly, your article is biased against VSM. As accusations of media bias are common but not backed up by examples, I’m going to give specific cases of bias in the article. Firstly, twice you refer to VSM advoctes as being motivated by ideology. In the last sentence you refer to it being motivated “almost purely for ideological reasons”. Not once do you refer to compulsory membership advocates as motivated by ideological reasons. In a sense CSM(compulsory student membership) is more ideological than VSM, because it involves forcing students to join something they don’t want to. Secondly, you quote Joey Randall from NZUSA for most of 7 paragraphs. in contrast you quote Roy for only for most of 2 paragraphs, plus another paragraph where you quote from her in relation to her bill, not the arguements for or against VSM. You also do not appear to ask Student Choice about VSM for the article. If I were writing an article about the VSM debate, Student Choice together with a pro-compulsory organisation (like NZUSA) , would be amongst the first groups to be contacted. When dealing with the effects of VSM in Australia, you use only one source-Joey Randall, who is partisan in favour of CSM. A more fairer article could to match the paragraph written about the effects of VSM in Australia, with one quoting mostly from a pro-VSM source in Australia, such as the Australian Liberal Students Federation or a pro-VSM politician in Australia. From what i’ve heared about VSM in Australia, there is little demand for a return for CSM, and it has mostly gone without any significent change in services etc. You then claim in your second to last paragraph that bad management doesn’t affect the ability of student associaitions to deliver services to students. This defies logic. for instance the $4000 or so spent by opie in psycic hotline calls could have been spent providing services to students. It representsould have gone to clubs etc but didn’t. It is also significent to remeber that last year VUWSA managed to halfway through the year discover a $300 000 budget defecit from nowhere, and relied on a levy increase suported at a SGM by only 95 of 20 000 students to fix the problem. I will post more latter.

  5. Laura says:

    You should write us the other side of the argument, Nicholas. I see you haven’t contributed much to the magazine this year. We miss you.

  6. Greg Edwards says:

    Hiding behind semantics!

    Michael Laws never championed the Bill that came before Parliament in 1997 at all. He didn’t say a word about it. Please get the facts right.

    No It wasn’t the same Bill at all. The Bills that came before Parliament (rememer there were two VSM bills that came before Parliament on the one night) had very little in common with Laws’ Bill, and the Bill that came out of the Science and Education Committee had even less in common with it.

    Please get your facts straight. It’s bad enough you wrote this biased little piece of “journalism” without even getting the facts straight. That’s two mortal sins of journalism broken in one story: there is no attempt at being fair and balanced, and scant regard shown for the facts.

    “we’ll just ignore that select committees have up to 6 months to debate a bill, and, even on non-controversial matters, usually use all 6 months.”

    Since when? I used to cover select committees in the Press Gallery, I can’t think of more than 2-3 Bills that took more than 6 months. That’s probably half the problem.

    G

  7. “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”

    More difficult for students’ associations, yes, not more difficult for students. Instead of having someone appointed by the students’ association, the whole student body would elect a couple of people. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that more democratic?

  8. CIJAWA says:

    I thought the article was quite balanced – for a 1,500 word article, Nicola interviewed one supporter of VSM, and one supporter of CSM.

    StudentChoice is a joke – who’s their representative; O’Kane? – don’t fucking kid yourself. I actually think she did VSM a favour by going to Heather Roy instead.

    But the crux of the issue is summed up in the last sentence:

    “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.”

    I think it’s a good article, just a little short – kind of remarkable given the poor quality of Salient this year.

  9. Dave Hall says:

    Graeme,

    As an Australian, I can assure you it will be more difficult for all students if VSM comes in. VSM mightn’t be so negative for students if Universities were properly funded, but the reality is your Universities are hopelessly underfunded. They need to cut costs where ever they can get away with it and without decent organised representation, students will most likely (and unfairly) bear the brunt of this.

    Greg,

    Your last post is quite appropriately titled – Hiding behind semantics!
    But I wouldn’t expect much more from an ACT lacky such as yourself. Is your blog not getting so many hits these days?

  10. CIJAWA-While Nicola went to one suporter of CSM and one VSM suporter, the CSM suporter was quoted much more than the VSM one. As for the use of student choice as a source, while student choice has no official president or spokespeople (something I personally would like to see changed) Mike Heine and Lucas Shroeter are amongst the more prominent members. As for the last paragraph, it does sumarise the article. however it basically says that 8.3% of students, in a rigged referendum, should be able to force the other 91.7% to join their student assosciation. This is what happened when Waikato returned to compulsory membership. I disagree that 51% of students should be able toi force the other 49% to join, but the referenda we had at student assosciations were hopelessly rigged. see the post “Old School On the Right: Voluntary Student membershio” at http://mikeheine.blogspot.com/2005_12_01_archive.html for details of rigged referenda. A better last paragrap (in terms of what I agree with, not balanced could read:
    “Roy is right when she says the VSM issue is about choice. That choice should be made by students individually deciding as a group wether or not they want to join a students assosciation, not by left wing politicians in the debating chamber who want to make students’ associations compulsory for ideological reasons.”
    Lastly, one of the best arguements for VSM is the fact that when it has been tried there is little support for returning to compulsory membership. Since Auckland went voluntary they had another referendum the next year on wether it should return to compulsory membership. The result was 59% voluntary, 41% compulsory. They tried two more times to reintroduce CSM, but again the students at Auckland uni voted to keep VSM by substantial margins. Also at Waikato, before the rigged referendum described in Heine’s post, they had 3 referendum since becoming voluntary on returning to compulsory membership, and in each case the VSM side won by big margins. I would like to see a CSM suporter try and show how CSM is best for students when at both Auckland and Waikato, when VSM is tried most students vote repeatedly to keep voluntary membership. If VSM really didn’t work, most students would vote to return to CSM.

  11. Clint Heine says:

    Dave Hall. I don’t think you are impartial either mate. Attacking ACT, Greg etc instead of addressing the issues shows you up to be quite up to date in left wing NZ student politics :)

    The Aussie associations were in turmoil for years and it showed when they became voluntary that students ran away in droves. Were you part of the student union movement in Aus? Most articles, even by Aus associations are saying that VSU was unwanted but life goes on.

    The people MOSTLY against VSM are in are the ones who have the most interest in keeping the money that they get annually. Look at the supporters of CSM – if they comment here and not anonymously then you can see the conflict of interest. VSM supporters have nothing to gain but to deliver freedom of association to all students.

    Think about it.

  12. Dave Hall says:

    Clint: In my early days at Uni, I was opposed to CSM. However, during my battles against paying Student Association fees, I came to realise their value. I’m still not fully against VSM, but I am opposed to having it forced by politicians.

    Students do have a choice, but they need to understand how things work to get there. This is important because most students don’t understand the true value of having a students’ association and naturally undervalue them. In gettting to the point of a referendum, most of these students would come to understand the importance of having organised representation protecting them from getting shafted by the Uni. It’s not just what the SA actually does, it’s also what simply being there stops from happening.

    Thought about it

  13. Nicola says:

    I’m not going to attempt to argue with all the points that have been raised here because that’ll just get boring and quite possibly give me a stroke. But there are a few things I would like to raise. My main point is that – whatever you think about VSM – the choice should be in the hands of the students. Not politicians. Secondly, if VSM is voted in, students are going to lose certain things that students’ associations provide. Fullstop.

    Deciding whether to go VSM or not requires informed debate. And by informed I mean having a better argument than Clelia’s psychic calls. Furthermore, an informed debate means (and I’m looking at you here Gman) playing the ball rather than the woman. Aside from pointing out the mistake about Michael Laws, you haven’t made any substantive criticism of the piece – which doesn’t really aid your argument. You can’t just call me biased because I don’t agree with you.

  14. Nick says:

    That sounds like something someone who was biased would say.

    Don’t bring your moderation and clear thinking here Kean, the Salient website is about poorly articulated mud-slinging and impassioned ill thought out rhetoric.

  15. milo says:

    Nicola, you’ve been fisked here: http://studentchoice.blogspot.com/

  16. Greg Edwards says:

    No you’re not biased because i disagree with you. You’re biased because you show a predisposition or prejudice against one side. One of the articles a few weeks ago in Salient claimed that you actually HATE VSM.

    You are also biased because you display a systematic distortion of facts to suit your views.

    When have I played the woman? I have never met this Clelia person. (You seem to be the person on first name basis with her) I’m just going on her actions…isn’ that how we are supposed to judge people–on their actions? or are you just sore because a friend of yours is in the firing line? If you cannot report the news because it is about your friends or because you have a personal and/or peculinary interest in the subject on which you are reporting then you have no right pretending that you are objective.

    If you want to be a real journalist then you need to get to the grips of this concept.

    Have a nice day

    Gman

  17. Nicola Kean says:

    Me and VUWSA friends? Maybe when I referred to the exec as morons I wasn’t using strong enough language.

    I made the “woman” comment referring to myself, rather than Clelia. If you’d actually bothered to look at the Salient coverage of the “Opiegate” issue, you’d see she doesn’t have any friends here.

    What I was trying to say was that you haven’t actually criticised the argument of the article, but rather went straight to calling the reporter biased.

  18. Laura says:

    Greg – the article was meant to say MSM (mainstream media) Hate, not VSM. It was changed during the editing process late on a production night. It has since been corrected online.

  19. Craig D says:

    “Students” is not a homogeneous entity.

    Other students shouldn’t decide what to do with my money. It ain’t theirs to choose.

    Your article and the NZUSA comments fudge this point – while “students” might have the choice now, students don’t have the choice- if you get what I mean.

    As for having less choice because the unions have less power, too farken bad. If you can’t prove you’re worth $$ to the students, then you don’t deserve to exist.

    It is disgusting that being forced to join an advocacy organisation in any other field of life would be seen as a human rights violation, but for students it is “ok”. I am a capitalist, yet for my whole degree I’ve been forced to pay for a bunch of communist idiots who claim to represent me. I don’t think they’d like it if they were forced to pay for Don Brash to represent them.

    VUWSA makes such a pathetic show of representing the students that it’s hard to see them as anything more than an extortion-funded, self-important cabal.

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