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March 23, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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VSM: Not a sexually transmitted disease

“More important in my view is actually to primarily ignore VSM in itself” —The late, great Joel Cosgrove, former president of VUWSA. The problem, however, is you can’t ignore Voluntary Student Membership of Students’ Associations (VSM). It is an issue that has been boiling under the surface of New Zealand tertiary institutions for well over a decade.

For those of you who didn’t know, you paid $131.90 to become part of VUWSA. It is tacked onto the rest of your fees when you enrol. Most people don’t even notice it. Under the Education Act 1989 section 229A, you have to be a member, and there can only be one students’ association on campus.

Section 229A subsections 5 and 6 put the proviso that students can be exempt if they are under financial hardship or they are conscientious objectors. In the former case they are members of the association regardless; in the later case the fee goes to a charity and the person is no longer a member of the association.

Section 229B—inserted by a private member’s bill of Michael Laws—adds that all students associations which are compulsory may hold a referendum to turn voluntary, but ten percent of the student population needs to sign a petition asking for a change. The important part being that this is an internal movement with a democratic basis.

Waikato Students’ Union (WSU) became voluntary and Auckland University Student Association (AUSA) and the Students’ Association at Unitec (USU) soon followed. Out of the three, only AUSA is still voluntary today.

In 2007, Salient feature writer Nicola Kean warned that a future centre-right National government supported by ACT could easily pass VSM legislation. Heather Roy, Wellington based ACT MP said in 2007 that ACT’s proposed VSM legislation would be part of a package of any deal with National.

The NATIONAL-ACT CONFIDENCE AND SUPPLY AGREEMENT—signed eight days after the 2008 election—does not explicitly mention VSM, or even tertiary eduction in general. Roy, ACT’s Education spokesperson and Associate Minister of Education, did not respond to questions put to her before publication of this article, and ACT’s website is devoid of tertiary education policy.

National does have some policy on tertiary education, but nothing on VSM. Tertiary Education Minister Anne Tolley doesn’t see the representation of students to be a major issue at the moment saying: “The government’s current focus is on how the tertiary system can react to the difficult economic circumstances the country is faced with. In particular we’re looking at how the tertiary system can cater for people who are losing their jobs and/or struggling to find employment.”

This is reassuring. Especially since this is one of the first statements Tolley has given on tertiary education—directed to tertiary students. The problem with this is that as student numbers rise, class sizes get bigger and universities come under more strain, we’re more likely to need strong representation to ensure students don’t get washed under a bureaucratic wave.

Waikato Student Union President Ben Delaney says that students being swept under the ‘bureaucratic rug’ is already a problem. “If you don’t have strong student representation people tend to forget their focus,” Delaney said, referring to a representative panel he had recently sat on. “The terms of reference said nothing about students. Aren’t they the most important part of teaching?”

The National Government, however, doesn’t have any plans to legislate for a voluntary membership system. Tolley said that “The current law gives student bodies the ability to change between voluntary and compulsory student membership. The government supports that flexibility and doesn’t see changing the system as a priority.” News which New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations co-president Jordan King welcomes saying that any move to VSM should be “no-where on the radar… they have bigger fish to fry.”

Delaney also thinks that the structure of the organisation is key. WSU has a ‘board of directors’ so that the association is covered under the Companies Act. This ensures that there are more stringent regulations about the way they can use money. It also means that eight of WSU’s eleven board members can be voted in on their merits, not just because they’re the only person running for one position.

WSU also employs a General Manager—a move that has long been mooted at VUWSA and will perhaps be coming to fruition in the next year [see Sarah’s article on page 26]. Delaney says a General Manager allows him to “represent students without having to manage things like staffing issues.”

“The President is the Employer of the General Manager and they work together, with clear lines of governance. It just adds certainty and stability. There is a continual presence” This is not currently the case at VUWSA, where the president is also the CEO.

What would happen if a second-term National government were to drop the VSM bomb, or a group of right-wingers were to push the issue?

“We would probably be able to function for a couple of years. If it was a student initated referenda here on campus, we would have more time to fight it. But we’re still looking at the same bottom line,” Freemantle said.

When asked about her involvement and first-hand knowledge of students’ associations and their role on campus, Tolley replied “I haven’t had any involvement in student politics.” It must be pointed out that Tolley has never been a university student and her idea of tertiary education is a belly dancing class. Surely a handy skill for any politician to have. Tolley is rumoured to be the first Minister of Education in the last 25 years not to hold a degree.

Delaney is adamant that a compulsory system is better: “Students like that there is a safety mechanism and that can provide solid representation.

“If you left it to individuals then you have multiple voices which are not as effective. I have a voice, the resources and the support.”

Freemantle is also strongly in favour of the current system: “I think everyone should be unionised.”

“If people are unionsed then they have significantly increased bargaining power than they do as individuals. I strongly think that forms of unionism are useful for the collective and greater good of their members,” she said.

VSM is already a choice. A choice that students of this university are free to make. Change, freedom and liberty are in your hands. The choice should not be in the hands of right-wing politicians whose main focus is ideology.

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The editor of this fine rag for 2009.

Comments (1)

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  1. Roger Douglas says:

    Despite what this story says about VSM not being on the agenda of our Government, I am distraught to hear today that the National Government is reintroducing a Voluntary Student Membership Bill. The Young Nats support this and have in fact been lobbying for it for some time. It will pass before the end of the year, it is a disgrace. All the vital services on campus offered by VUWSA are doomed. Students need to actively campaign against such a travesty.

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