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July 14, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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The Union: A threat to campus life?

A decrease in funding and morality has caused the university experience of the average student to become ruled by the establishment’s business imperatives rather than the pursuit of knowledge. Hence the attempts to reduce gender studies and film from proper subjects to leisure pursuits. Campus spirit and student activism has been replaced by sleazy student politicians and scenester bullshit. The ‘Student’ Union Building should represent a beacon of hope in these soulless times. Union student services manager Rainsforth Dix seemed to sum up interest in the future of the ‘Student’ Union Building with the statement “every year there is some new (Salient) reporter opening up issues that have already been settled between VUWSA and theUnion.” At the risk of opening up old wounds Salient Feature Writer Jenna Powell investigates the future of the Student Union Building under new increasing financial pressures. With VUWSA in financial trouble and the University’s lack of funding – do students have any control over the services the Student Union provides?

YE OLDE STUDENT UNION

The Student Union Building (SUB) was originally built with student money in 1961, and managed by the student-dominated Union Management Committee; another fully-student-funded expansion was completed in 1992. However at the same time a disturbing financial pattern emerged as VUWSA got itself into debt and the building was taken over by the Union, a subdivision of Campus Facilities with no accountability to students – hence its recent name change from Student Union to just plain Union. While the Union is supposed to be accountable to a Joint Student Union Board (comprised of both VUWSA and VUW management representatives), this board wields little actual power.

Over the years poor management and corporatisation have been the key questions on students’ minds when it comes to their Student Union Building and the services it provides. Dix said that it costs “2 million dollars each year” to service and run the building. The student services in the building that directly benefit students are limited to the shabby looking games room and a few bung computers. Recent SUB upgrades have benefited VUWSA with their somewhat pathetic new meeting room.

THE BAR

In 2006 the bar formally known as Eastside was renamed and given a 6pm curfew and expensive new prices. Mount Street Café and Bar was given an extreme makeover gone wrong, reminiscent of a boarding school’s lunch room. In 2006 Rainsforth Dix told Salient one of the main reasons behind changing the bar’s name was to avoid association with American gang culture. When asked if she still fears a hostile ‘Eastside’ takeover Dix refused to comment. Despite the Association’s argument it is widely acknowledged that there was no student consultation on any of the decisions involving the bar.

Rainsforth insists that the bar runs at a loss and does not seem open to the idea that the bar could potentially make money. According to the SUB’s five-year budget forecast, the bar will make a $13,000 profit this year, falling to a $40,000 loss in 2010, due to a proposed rental fee which may or may not eventuate. Dix concludes that “the operational costs of running the bar make it difficult to make a profit.” She also points out that making money is not the key aim of the bar; “It is a place for students to relax.” One cannot help but wonder – if Mount Street Bar’s focus is students, then why does it close at 6pm? Another question that comes to light is – if the bar is running at a loss when their main patronage is booze thirsty student, surely that is bad business management? Dix disagrees, stating that “the days of the old student bar are over” as it is “not sustainable” and that given the choice, students prefer to drink off campus.

Back when the drinking age was 20 the police often turned a blind eye to underaged drinking on campus, making the SUB’s bar many students’ only option. Since we are now free to drink in town, it is not surprising that the bar has experienced some drop-off in patronage. Nevertheless, Joint Student Union Board representative and VUWSA president Joel Cosgrove believes Victoria University having a profitable bar is “quite possible” and points to Auckland University’s student bar Shadows. “What we need is an awesome idea and a clear strategy,” says Cosgrove. Dix also stressed that she believes only a “small pocket of students” are interested in a “dynamic bar on campus.” According to Dix the “small” number of students does not justify the bar being open beyond 6pm.

There has, however, been no notable effort to promote the bar to students through activities beyond O-week. The promotion of the bar is also hindered by Victoria University’s strict policies on advertising alcohol-fuelled events on campus. Dix told Salient that the demographic of the Kelburn Campus is mainly mature students and they would not be interested in the bar. She also reminded us that “not all students drink.” Although Kelburn’s average student is in their mid twenties, anyone who spends much time around the campus would see that younger students appear much more frequently.

The bar on Massey’s Auckland campus at Albany is capable of making a profit. Albany Student Union’s general manager Nigel Green told Salient that although the bar has recently entered into a service agreement with a corporate partner “we were able to make a profit” when it was completely run by the Student Union. The general manager does acknowledge that the profit is extremely “varied from year to year” but insists that once the association hired “a professional bar manager rather than part time staff” profit margins increased.

UNION CONTROL OVER O-WEEK AND ACTIVITES

The Union is widely rumoured to be the ‘fun police’, extending their long arm of lameness over potentially awesome events. A nearby resident has come forward to Salient saying that each OWeek the Union sends out letters to the University’s neighbors stating that they do not support the noise that occurs during OWeek. This letter goes directly against student interests and begs the question, who are the Union actually representing? The letter also takes credit for security and safety measures that VUWSA solely provides. General Manger Rainsforth Dix denies that the letters sent out to nearby residents state anything about the Union not supporting VUWSA associated O-Week activities.

In 2006 rumours surfaced that the Union stopped a free Fat Freddy’s Drop concert taking place in the Quad because of what Dix describes as “competing student interests.” Dix denies any knowledge of the “Fat Freddy’s Drop incident” but does admit that the Union has stopped noisy events going ahead in quad because apparently “most students do not appreciate it” due to its proximity to the library.

VUWSA vs. STUDENT UNION – WHO WOULD WIN IN A CAGE FIGHT?

Under the current system the Union is in no way held accountable for their actions. Unlike their partners in crime, the VUWSA exec, they cannot be rolled if their actions are unbecoming. VUWSA president Joel Cosgrove put it candidly: “if someone [in the Union] fucks up” the members do not have the power to “give them the boot.” The Union also comes under far less scrutiny from students (and Salient) than VUWSA. Cosgrove believes a combination of these elements has caused the Union to be far less accountable than VUWSA.

When asked if the presence of the Union hinders VUWSA, Cosgrove’s reply was “not per se.” He acknowledges that there have been “ongoing problems” but VUWSA and the Union are “developing a good relationship.” Cosgrove is adamant that the decisions are consensus based and there has to be a general agreement before a decision is made. General Manager Rainsforth Dix did not seem to share the same positive sentiments about Cosgrove as she argued (without knowing what Joel had said) that his interview with Salient on this matter would be “based on what he thinks students want to hear, not on facts.”

VUWSA President Joel Cosgrove denies any accusations of corporatisation in the Student Union Building. He points to the club allocated spaces and the strategies developed through VUWSA and the Union of a supposed “mass redevelopment” that will benefit students by increasing the space available to students. Both Cosgrove and Dix say students always get “preferential access” to the SUB, however many students don’t feel that the Union really represents their interests. Perhaps it is understandable that University management don’t trust VUWSA to run the building, but the Union’s ‘fun police’, being unaccountable to students, are not doing a great job either.

STUDENT REPRESENTATION

It is questionable whether the Union still put student interests above all else. The University needs to reevaulate the role of the Union. If they are not serving student interests and Dix doesn’t consider the bar financially viable, then what are they doing? Although not all students want to indulge in alcohol, let’s be honest: most do. The way the bar is run at present does noone any favours; the Union aren’t making any money, and students aren’t satisfied with the service provided.

Illustration by Kristy Barlow

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Comments (6)

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  1. Brunswick says:

    How can an on-campus student bar lose money? That’s like having a wimple shop in Vatican City. Unless the bar closed at six, or had an unpronounceable name, or sold some of the most expensive cheap beer in Wellington, or had the decor of a killing floor, or had NO beer on tap… I just answered my own question.

  2. Jackson Wood says:

    I loved Eastside. I loved it with all my heart. In my first year I had tutorials 1-2 and 3-4 the hour between was the perfect time to go and consume two JUGS of beer.

    On the last day of trimester the whole ground floor of the Atrium would be packed with students swilling $6 jugs and stacking them up high until the tower reached the thrid floor.

    During the normal week day one could stay there till late and relax in the comfortable couches, play pool and chat to other students. They even had a bar quiz.

    I was in there at the end of last trimester, and Robert Deuchars made the fine observation that it was “a student bar, without any students.” There is no reason why they couldn’t get bums on seats in the bar, they have a captive audience. This bullshit about going down to town is crap. I would prefer to get tanked up here at uni, play pool and have a good time with other students and then go write an essay than going down into town.

    Bring back Eastside. Bring back the pool tables. Bring back tap beer. Make an effort to make money in the bar.

    I do not support the bar formerly known as eastside. Whenever possible I try to go to the Staff club or down the hill to Menas.

  3. Yeahh it’s meant to be a student bar but it looks like a hospital dining hall (do they have those? Is MSBC one? Who knows). Tussock’s good as, it’s all orange and has Tui stuff everywhere! That’s the kind of bar students want

  4. How me study when no beer? says:

    The bar section of Mount Street has signs up saying it’s open from lunch until 6 weekdays, but it was closed today and yesterday. Perhaps the problem isn’t so much the lack of jugs as the lack of any alcohol whatsoever for most of the time… ah well those tuis we got from Mena’s were choice. Sux to be Eurest.

  5. Laura McQuillan says:

    I vote that students boycott MSBC in favour of getting Tui from Mena’s and drinking on the Hunter lawn. Who’s with me??!

  6. Laura McQuillan says:

    K so I actually only just read the article but… Great article Jenna!! Really well done

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