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March 8, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Catherine Delahunty

Interview with Catherine Delahunty, Green Party MP and spokesperson for the Greens on tertiary education—9am Thursday 25 February 2010.

Matthew: I’m speaking with Catherine Delahunty, MP and Education spokesperson for the Greens. Catherine, first of all, why does the Green Party support compulsory student membership in student unions?

Catherine: Well, universality provides services for everybody that are really badly needed in universities. Universities don’t look after students; students look after students in many ways, and one of the benefits of compulsory student unionism is that the fees allow students’ associations to provide proper services and support—not to mention providing colour and vibrancy to any campus.

But it’s more basic than a great student radio or a great orientation week. It’s about advocacy, it’s about support, it’s about everybody from foreign students through to people who have come from rural areas actually being able to make the most of university. If you do not have students paying into a fund there isn’t the right kind of money, and it reduces student services to small, voluntary attempts and to contracting, and it doesn’t provide the same level of opportunity for all students.

Matthew: And what are some of the advantages that you believe compulsory student membership provides?

Catherine: Well, I think it’s in that field of the welfare and advocacy for the student body. I also think the student voice is really important. I guess as an MP on the Select Committee it’s been incredibly valuable to have the student voice participating in issues around polytechs, councils’ bills or various student loan amendment bills that have gone through this House since I have been here in the past year, and there have been quite a few. If there is no properly organised and funded student body you don’t hear the student voice at the level of decision making, which is all about students’ lives and all about students’ situations.

So there’s the political advocacy voice, but there’s also the looking after of people on campus, the providing of foreign student support, of information services, everything from food banks to women’s affairs through to all the clubs and sports, which are actually a huge investment for this country. At university, some of our best young people get involved in things through students’ associations that lead them to both political, sporting, academic and community careers. It all comes out of an organised student union body.

Matthew: Can you comment on the official policy of the Greens on Roger Douglas’ Freedom of Association bill?

Catherine: Pretty simple—bad idea! We believe it’s 1980s dinosaur thinking, and we will be opposing it all the way.

Matthew: And what actions are the Greens pursuing in support of retaining compulsory student membership?

Catherine: I know a lot of students’ associations are campaigning hard to save their services and to fight the bill, and we’ll be working hard with them to do that. We’ll be talking to our members and encouraging people to get actively involved in the submissions process. We’ll be strongly advocating in parliament against it and using every opportunity in the media to challenge the idea that it’s about choice. Because really what would be created would be a whole lot of no choices for students on campus. So we’ll be using all the tools at our disposal.

Matthew: Now I’d just like to talk about some of the arguments that have been put forward by the voluntary side, just to get your comment on those. You talked about the idea of choice and likened it to actually having no choice. Would you like to make any further comments on Roger Douglas’ argument for freedom of association?

Catherine: Yes, well, right now, students can opt in and opt out, and there’s a variety of models on campuses. So it’s not as if we have the same type of compulsory student unionism on every campus. It’s different at Auckland than it is at Waikato, it’s different in Otago. Every campus puts it to their student body, and the student body does decide what type of union they are going to have.

If we follow the choice argument through, it all sounds terribly appealing—you know, “you are free not to belong to something”—but when you go to university, many new students don’t realise what the unions provide. And what looks like just part of the university infrastructure is actually created by the student unions. If students do not pay a small fee to be part of that, and don’t join up, and say “well, I don’t really feel like being part of that because I don’t understand unionism”, which is what has happened to many students, and the word “union” is quite a foreign word to many younger people, they just don’t realise what they are going to lose. They don’t realise that, to have a good society, whether they’re at university or anywhere else, we all need to participate in order to make things work for the whole. As an individual, there will be no club for you, there will be no student radio, there will be no welfare, there will be no food bank, and who’s going to provide it for you? You don’t actually say, “hey, I’m a student, I’m part of the student body, and this is what it means”.

Matthew: Another argument that has been put forward by the voluntary side is that, while the number of services offered by unions would undoubtedly decrease, those services would be more targeted to the members’ needs because they would have the buying power to say whether or not they want to join. What would be your comment on that?

Catherine: I don’t even think it makes sense. I don’t see that as an argument at all, I mean “buying power”… someone has to do the work, someone has to do the organising. I’ve been a community organiser all my life, and if you don’t have anybody who has some kind of way to organise, things don’t happen. Relying on a stressed student body to voluntarily create all the services that are currently offered by student unions, and calling that choice, is just nonsense.

Matthew: Now in some of the comments you made, you talked about advocacy and clubs. Do you see a distinction between the two? Do you see advocacy as being more of a core service, and clubs as something of a secondary service—or do you see the two as being the same?

Catherine: I think they’re all part of the picture. I wouldn’t like to separate them out. I think people at university go there for the whole life, and then find that it’s actually quite a difficult life when you’ve got a student loan scheme, when you’ve got a recession and you’re away from home—it’s not easy. So advocacy for student welfare is incredibly important.

But it isn’t separate from the activities because the clubs are—the Debating Club, for example, has something to do with the debates at Victoria University, and the debating club is where ideas get thrashed out by young people from all political perspectives. It’s a sport, but it’s also part of the development of… Universities are, theoretically at least, meant to be places where ideas get developed. So whether you’re developing sporting prowess, or you’re developing debating skills, or you’re part of a language club, that’s really part of your learning and part of your development as a student body. The same goes for advocacy. Many people who ended up in parliament cut their teeth on student politics, and that’s a good thing. And students are a hard audience—God knows I’ve had to speak in front of them, they don’t take prisoners, and you’ve got to be very articulate and very in touch to get the confidence of the student body. And that’s what students’ associations have to do. And it’s important that they do that, and they can’t do that if they’ve been reduced to pockets on campus instead of the fundamental part of the student body that they should be.

Matthew: Now, another argument that’s been put forward by voluntary advocates is that student unions typically adopt more radical policies and stances, and that often that alienates their membership, causing them to feel that the association doesn’t represent them. What would be your comment on that?

Catherine: Well, it’s interesting because the person putting forward this bill—some of those radical people on campus are ACT Party members, so he [Roger Douglas] is going to be cutting them out. The definition of ‘radical’ is to go to the root of the matter, and if you cannot when you’re young go to the root of the matter you may never get there.

It’s a very important time in young people’s lives to be active and thinking and debating and organising around politics, and that’s part of being a student. And if you take that away, if you say that students who get involved in unions are non-representative, well, they get there because they have the capacity to get there, and that’s what our political life is all about—people being prepared to put themselves up there. So rather than trying to undermine the democratic participatory process that happens around student politics, they should be supporting that. That’s why unions are important.

Matthew: Just one final question. In what ways do the policies of the Greens differ from those of National and Labour, not only on student membership, but on tertiary education in general?

Catherine: We are not going to forget that many of the politicians in this parliament who don’t belong to the Green Party got, like I did, a free tertiary education. We believe that the student loan scheme has been utterly oppressive of education in New Zealand, and we stand strongly, not just for tinkering which is what Labour did, or restricting which is what National is looking like they’re doing around access to universities, but actually making education far more accessible to far more people. We stand for universal student allowances and we stand for people being able to work in this country rather than going into debt, and we would like a major rethink of the effect of the student loan scheme on education at a tertiary level. In that case the Greens have a far more student-orientated approach, because we actually understand that indebting our young people is not the best way to build an economy or a community, and we are really, really opposed to it.

In terms of National, they’re being pushed by the ACT Party to be even more radical, if you like, in terms of privatising education at all levels. The prime minister’s state of the nation address at the beginning of the year was very worrying in terms of saying that the taxpayer’s generosity couldn’t be exploited by students. The negativity towards the student body which National has expressed lately is very worrying. Steven Joyce was put in there to do something, we’d all love to know what.

The Labour Party, they did at least get rid of interest, but there are still huge issues. And of course it was their party who brought in the student loan scheme. The Green Party would never have done that. We firmly believe in the core value of making education accessible, and we actually think young people get the message that it’s great to be in debt, and then they find out the reality for the rest of their lives. That’s actually quite criminal what we’ve done to your generation. And when we talk about that, people can’t even imagine education as a right without debt, they can’t even visualise what that might be like. That’s only taken a generation to lose that. I spent $150 a year on books when I was at Victoria University in my stage one year, you know? It’s unthinkable. I can now look at the rest of my life without debt, whereas so many of today’s young people will still be paying off their student debt at my age.

The Green Party stands very strongly for how we can turn back the tide of telling young people that they’re not important, they’re not valuable, and also encouraging them that the debt / credit cycle is not a good way to manage a student’s life. The consequences are very, very serious for generations, so we stand for a radical rethink, and a far more accessible approach to education than putting people into cycles of debt and individualising them, which is why student unions are important, because they’re the one collective voice available to students to talk about these issues which have basically been forced underground by the student loan scheme because every individual is so desperate just to survive, pay their loan, get a good job and get through university, that universities are no longer the vibrant places that they should be.

Matthew: Well, Catherine, thank you very much for your time. Did you have any final remarks that you wanted to make?

Catherine: Party vote Green!

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