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March 8, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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David Do

Interview with David Do, NZUSA Co-President—1pm Tuesday 23 February 2010.

Matthew: I’m here talking with David Do, Co-President of NZUSA, about the issue of student membership—and specifically, Roger Douglas’ bill. David, firstly, why do you and NZUSA support compulsory student membership in student unions?

David: Well, the current model is universal membership, not compulsory, since students can individually opt out, and the current situation is that all students can collectively decide what choice they want in terms of membership systems. So we use the term ‘universal membership’ to describe the current situation.

We support the current status quo because students can already choose how they want to organise themselves—they can choose to opt out. And the services, the representation, the welfare, and the experience that associations provide are only possible because students are automatically members of their association. So that’s our main reasons for supporting this, because the current situation does help students in their education and the experience they have at tertiary institutions. And we don’t see the need for that to change—the status quo is satisfactory.

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

David: Well, students’ associations provide a wide range of services for students. There’s representation, there’s welfare, there’s experience, there’s clubs and societies, advocacy—lots of various things. And the main reason why students’ associations are able to provide those services is because students are automatically members. They pay a small levy, and that gives the association the ability and the resources to provide what students want. And these are services that students want because they are based on student demand, and the association is responsive to students in many ways. They are accountable to students through general meetings, through regular elections, through the threat of being voted out at a special meeting. So students’ associations are accountable and democratic.

So there are many advantages of the current situation that really wouldn’t be the case if there was voluntary student membership.

Matthew: And what is NZUSA’s official policy on Roger Douglas’ Freedom of Association Bill?

David: Well, we oppose the bill because we believe it is up to students to decide how they want to organise themselves, not for parliament. We support the current situation because students can already choose individually to opt out, and collectively through referendum, whereas Roger Douglas’ bill is going to force voluntary on everyone. We believe students should make those decisions, as they already can under the current legislation. So that’s why we oppose the bill.

Another key reason why we oppose the bill is because of the very negative effect the bill will have on students. Students’ associations in a voluntary environment will probably not be able to sustain many, or any, of the services that they currently offer. That’s going to hurt the quality of education that students receive and the quality of experience that they have at tertiary institutions.

So we’re really concerned with how students will be affected through quality of education and quality of experience.

Matthew: What actions and policies are NZUSA pursuing in support of retaining universal student membership? Specifically, I have heard talk of a ‘student membership summit’ and a ‘President’s Committee’ that was held towards the end of last year. Do you have any comments on either of those?

David: Well, NZUSA is working with students’ associations, and one of the key things is to inform students as much as possible about what this bill means for them, what is at stake, what associations do, and the value that they bring to students. Our goal is to inform students and encourage them to take action against the bill because of the negative effects that this bill will have on their education and their experience. So that’s one of the many areas of activity—informing students and encouraging them to take action.

Secondly, we’ve been talking with members of parliament, and talking to other organisations in the tertiary sector, and trying to get their support on board for the campaign. And throughout all of this, we at NZUSA are going to continue our core business of representing students at a national level and ensuring that students’ perspectives are heard where the decisions are made on things like education quality, fees, loans and allowances. So VSM is a very important campaign because it does affect all students, but we are continuing at NZUSA with our normal work that we do in representing students every day.

Matthew: Now, if voluntary student membership were introduced in New Zealand, what are some of the effects that you think we would see in the university experience?

David: In the university experience there are five main impacts. I’ll focus on two or three.

Firstly, it will devastate important student services; for example, at VUWSA, with welfare, advocacy, support for clubs and societies, among others, they are an essential part of the tertiary education experience. They help enhance what students learn in the classroom and provide a useful experience outside it. The real concern is that, under voluntary membership, these services will be lost because associations will no longer have the revenue to provide them. Also at Victoria University in particular, specific support for particular groups such as Maori students, Pacifica, Queer, students with disabilities. Also faculty representation that VUWSA helps facilitate, that’s something that’s going to be lost because associations will not be able to sustain those structures.

So for the student on the ground, their experience will be severely diminished because a lot of what VUWSA does will disappear. A lot of those things do contribute to the overall experience that a student has when they come on campus.

Also with the representation side, students’ associations play a very important watchdog role on the institution through student representation on all the committees inside the institution, and also being a regular feedback mechanism the institution uses to see how things are going. So students’ associations play an important part in quality assurance.

The risk is also that the quality of education that students receive will diminish over time as well, because the institution is less likely to respond to students’ needs and wants because the association isn’t there and isn’t channelling feedback to the institution.

And obviously students who are members of clubs—ethnic clubs, religious clubs, sporting clubs—they get some support from the association that’s going to be lost, as well as the ability of these clubs to hold—students’ associations help clubs and societies with funding or facilities or in some other ways to help run their events for their members, so students might see a diminished experience from that. University games—lots of students participate those and other sporting competitions and aspects, and students’ associations help fund a lot of tertiary sport in New Zealand. That’s likely to be lost if they’re not able to fund that.

So those tangible things in terms of clubs, sports, representation, quality of education—those are four key things for students. Orientation, of course, is always a very big thing too.

The other aspect of course is, if voluntary membership comes in, the university may want to try and continue some of the things the association does already for students. Obviously, that has financial cost, and up until now students have contributed to that student support and the current services. The real risk—and this has happened in Australia—is that institutions may have to divert core funding for their research and teaching budgets to help plug the gap that has occurred because of voluntary membership. And that means less money for tutorials, facilities, good teachers, that sort of thing. So that will also affect the quality of education.

Also, in Australia when voluntary membership was passed, the government there set up a special $120 million transition fund just for voluntary membership. So that extra government spending on a situation that was fine before, that’s going to cost more to government, cost more to taxpayers. We all understand the tight fiscal situation that the government and tertiary institutions do face. The problem is that this bill, if passed, will create a lot more financial costs, and it could create a crisis on campus.

Matthew: I’d like to just talk about the arguments that VSM advocates have put forward, to get your response on those. Specifically, I’d like to go back to some of the things you said before about accountability, members’ ability to opt out of associations, and the fact that students are automatically enrolled in associations when they start at university. Do you feel that accountability is an issue when students are automatically enrolled in an association?

David: Well, students’ associations do have several accountability mechanisms. Students can obviously vote for who they want to control the association at elections, they vote at general meetings on how much they pay as a levy—or whether to have a levy at all. There are also provisions in the constitution for students to call a general meeting, they can call a meeting to get rid of exec members at any time.

And also, if students didn’t want to maintain the existing membership structure they can do a petition and call for a referendum to be held by the institution to decide whether the membership should still be compulsory or voluntary. This has happened already in recent years—UniTech was voluntary but students wanted to change, so they changed back to compulsory in 2007; Waikato university was voluntary for a while, they changed back in 2000; and Auckland have stayed voluntary, students have voted to stay that way, their last referendum was in 2003.

So in terms of accountability, the students’ associations are, as incorporated associations, regularly audited. Their accounts have to be made available to members and satisfy their requirements. So a lot of the mechanisms are in place already.

Matthew: One of the criticisms that has been raised is that, because students’ associations have a guaranteed pool of money through membership levies, the level of accountability is lowered. What would be your comment on that?

David: I disagree, because there are many mechanisms already for students to hold students’ associations accountable on how they spend student money. One of those aspects is student media, maintained in part trough students automatically becoming members. They play an important watchdog role on VUWSA. In a voluntary environment, if student media is not able to survive or is in a very compressed role, there’d be much less accountability because you won’t have that watchdog role on the association itself.

Also, the association might not be able to sustain the systems that are already in place in terms of auditing and regular finance reporting that would already be in place when students are automatically members.

So actually under voluntary there would be less accountability because of the student media aspect, but also transparency because students currently decide how much they pay and where to spend it through the budget and the general meetings. Under voluntary, if the institutions decided to charge a fee and then negotiate some unspecified amount with the association, then all students are paying anyway and have no say at all on how much they are paying towards the association or how that money is being spent.

Matthew: Another argument that has been put forward by VSM advocates is that the services that are listed as being ‘essential’ to student unionism would still be provided under voluntary student membership—if they are so valuable, students will still want to join. What is your comment on that?

David: Currently there are some services that institutions already provide—healthcare, for example—that aren’t going to change. But the real risk is that many of these other services that associations provide—the fact is that they will have to be reduced and cut because they no longer will have the resources available from students to run the services that students want.

In terms of “if it’s so good students will join anyway”, we need to consider how it works at a voluntary campus. I was president at Auckland University two years ago, which is still the only voluntary campus. And it started every—orientation at most campuses have the fun, the events, all that kind of stuff for most students coming in at the moment—but at Auckland they also spend tens of thousands of dollars just to sign up members. And it is difficult if you’re a new student, you will not know the many ways in which an association will benefit you, you may not know when you will need the association’s help. So asking a fresh student just to pay an up-front fee, as would happen under a voluntary situation, the fact is that that just won’t happen. Most students won’t pay because they haven’t had a chance to consider all the benefits yet.

At Auckland we had to do huge membership drives to provide us legitimacy to represent students, and the amount of students we sign up doesn’t really affect how much funding we had. So it was really about providing legitimacy. But the fact that the association has had to focus money on signing up members rather than serving members, that was a real challenge that we had at AUSA.

Matthew: One of the major ideological viewpoints of pro-VSM advocates is that universal student membership is a breach of freedom of association, and that students, like all members of society, should have the right to choose which organisations they do or do not join. What would be your comment on that?

David: You’re right, freedom of association does ensure people the right to associate with whoever they choose. But automatically becoming a member of a students’ association doesn’t in any way affect someone’s ability to associate with anyone they choose. The argument they use for freedom of association is actually more related to dissociation. When the students automatically become members, they have the rights of members, they can use the benefits, they can participate in decision making. But it’s not forced upon them. It’s not an obligation to vote, there’s not an obligation to use any particular service.

So what proponents are saying with the freedom of association argument is actually more about dissociation. To essentially say that it breaches human rights is inaccurate, because the current situation doesn’t affect someone’s ability to associate with anyone else; in fact, it facilitates more ways to associate with all sorts of different associations through the clubs and societies that are supported.

The fact that students can opt out based on conscientious objections and financial hardship also covers those arguments—it’s not forced when people can opt out based on those grounds.

Matthew: And speaking of the opt-out clause, do you feel that, if universal student membership is retained, clauses like the opt out will need to be reviewed? For example, at VUWSA, opting out is quite a difficult process, the end result of which is that, if your application to dis-enrol from the association is accepted, your money is then donated to a charity of VUWSA’s choice. Do you feel that areas like that need reform?

David: Well, our current position is that the status quo should be supported, and that it doesn’t require change. One of the issues with opting out is that it does depend on each institution, so it is variable throughout the country in terms of what process they have. And it’s decided by each institution in consultation with the associations.

I think there may be scope for trying to ensure that there are minimum requirements that you need to have in an opt-out process. That would be worth looking at. But that aspect can be looked at, but you don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater as this bill is seeking to do.

Matthew: And just one final question. Do you see any particular services provided by students’ associations to be more essential than others? Specifically, some VSM advocates have drawn a line between core services like advocacy and welfare, and secondary services like clubs which are more tailored to specific interests rather than the entire student body.

David: I think there is often a danger in trying to define what is a core service, because often with a package of things, like a package of education which students—students enter a university because they are attracted by certain aspects of a degree program or experience—but often there are a lot of other things that tie into that and contribute to that particular aspect.

And the danger of trying to define core services, to put them in specific boxes as it were, is that that actually ignores the complexity of the relationships that often exist between different types of services that a students’ association offers. For example, separating representation from the services can be difficult because there are quite a lot of blurry lines. What is a representation? What is a service? A service is essentially affected by not having the connection to this representative structure. So it’s much more complex than that argument you represented has said.

Matthew: Okay. Well, thank you very much David.

David: Thank you very much.

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