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March 8, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Elliot Blade and Alex Nelder

Phone interview with AUSA President Elliot Blade and AUSA Education Vice-President Alex Nelder—2pm 26 February 2010.

Matthew: Okay, I’m speaking with Elliot Blade and Alex Nelder, the Auckland University Students’ Association (AUSA) President and Education Vice-President respectively. Guys, first of all, what is the policy of AUSA on the question of student membership?

Elliot: In respect to what our policy is at Auckland at the moment?

Matthew: Yes.

Elliot: Well, we currently have a voluntary model. There was a referendum in 1999 in which the majority of students voted to send us voluntary. Is that all you need—like, what do you mean by student membership? Can you clarify that?

Matthew: Well, does AUSA support the introduction of widespread voluntary membership, or would AUSA prefer retaining a compulsory model?

Elliot: We actually support the status quo, which is a referendum-based model. At the moment, students get to decide what system they want on campus, whether it be a voluntary or compulsory model.

Matthew: Okay. And what is AUSA’s view on Roger Douglas’ Freedom of Association Bill?

Alex: In terms of the bill itself, it’s a bad bill. A move to widespread voluntary membership would be a disaster which would gut services across the country. The referendum model allows students a choice as to what model works best for them on their campus. To go for a widespread voluntary model, the really important services that we run as a students’ association would basically be gutted.

Matthew: And how has voluntary student membership changed the organisation and funding models for AUSA? Also, how has it affected the services that you guys provide?

Elliot: Our services definitely—see this happened in 1999, so none of us were around here, but we’ve gone through all the information and our staff—I don’t want to say a number, but they were basically cut by a lot, over half our staff. So our services were dramatically decreased.

Alex: Matthew, it’s worth pointing out that this might fall better into a follow-up question. AUSA survived when it went voluntary for two key reasons. One reason was that over the eighty years that we were a compulsory organisation we had built up a number of assets—for example, we had a stake in the university bookshop, and businesses around Auckland—so we were able to turn a profit in those businesses. Many of the other associations don’t have that—it’s quite hard to tell your members when you’ve been a president for one year when the lifecycle of the average degree is about three years, it’s hard to tell them that instead of spending the money on them you’re going to spend it on long-term investment projects. So, while we were able to build up a lot of those resources, most other associations don’t have them.

The second thing is that we were able to sign, after a couple of years of being voluntary, a contract of services with the university whereby we provide some of the services and they give us money from the student services levy that they collect off all students.

Matthew: And how would you describe the services that are currently offered by AUSA under voluntary membership? Specifically, what sort of services do you offer, and how do they differ from what was offered under a compulsory model?

Elliot: I’d have to say that the ones we provide are good services—we just provide a lot less of them. I think the one thing that students notice the most is probably our orientation and events in O-Week are a fraction of what they used to be. We used to have the big bands come in, and we used to have awesome parties. Now AUT constantly have better parties across the road, despite having about half our population.

Alex: I think the staff are forced to do a very good job with very limited resources. This happens across the board—for orientation, our events manager is working with a very small budget. His entire budget for the week was much smaller than AUT had to spend on their Friday night party. So it’s these sorts of constraints that we’re working with.

Where it gets a bit more serious is when you start to talk about the advocacy and welfare services we provide. We provide a welfare service which provides emergency assistance for people who get themselves into all sorts of trouble and they can’t go through all the university’s rigmarole because they need money very quickly. And while the service we provide is a very vital service, we just cannot provide it to the extent that we think students deserve. In terms of advocacy services, we have people that work really hard and do great things with the resources we give them, but they’re overworked and they’re very under-resourced.

Matthew: So if voluntary student membership were introduced in New Zealand, what do you predict would be some of the effects on student unionism and the university experience in general?

Elliot: I think two situations would arise. A lot of the polytech and university unions that haven’t built up assets would collapse, so they’d virtually be non-existent, so goodbye to student-run O-Weeks and stuff like that. The students’ associations that do have assets, such as Canterbury and us, survived on a slimmed-down version of themselves. I don’t see the ones without assets really surviving.

Alex: There’s a chance that some of them could limp on like us, sort of the sick old men of the student movement, but it wouldn’t be a very healthy situation. Across the board there’d be a widespread gutting and paring down of really essential services.

I suppose we’re sort of a grim picture of what the future could look like. We’re struggling to provide services across the board and we’re given quite a small budget by the university with which to provide services. There are times when they decide they [the university] want to run things that are normally the domain of a students’ association. An example of this is the orientation week concert they’ve decided to host this year in which their idea of a party which is fun for students is one which is exclusive for first years, which involves no alcohol, which is held on a lawn and contains only Midnight Youth. That’s potentially the future under university-administered services.

The alternatives are that you could end up with services that are not really independent. Just imagine for an example that you’re a student who is falsely accused of plagiarism, and imagine that the advocacy service that you go to see is also run by the university, who also run the discipline council that you’re going before. A clear conflict of interest arises here.

I mean, there’s two models—one whereby the university takes over and provides all services crappily, which is what Auckland sometimes tries to do, and an even worse alternative where they don’t provide them at all and people are forced to pay for private services when they need them, or forced to go out and seek charity from the general marketplace.

Matthew: Now roughly what percentage of the student body at Auckland is a member of AUSA?

Elliot: Last year it was roughly 50 per cent. This year our signups are going very well—we’ve already got 7,000 signups and it’s not even O-Week yet. We’re predicting just over 50 per cent this year, hopefully. You’ll have to ask that question in about two weeks’ time—a week after O-week, because that’s when everybody signs up.

Alex: From the 1st of January each year our membership resets to zero. Also something as well is the sheer amount of resources we have to push into this sign-up week. So right off the bat, when we’re already an association on a tight budget, we have to go out and seek sponsors, put out a diary and a wall planner, just to give people some incentive to want to sign up without having to go through the rigmarole of explaining to them the services.

Matthew: Now I’d like to talk about some of the counter-arguments that have been put forward by the voluntary advocates, just to get your point of view on those. The crucial one, especially stressed by Roger Douglas, is the concept of freedom of association. What would be your comment on that?

Elliot: There’s been a couple of legal opinions out. I haven’t seen a legal opinion yet that supports what he’s saying—as far as we know all of the legal opinions state that the opt-out, compulsory/universal model doesn’t contradict the bill of rights.

Alex: Basically, you can argue that freedom of association means that the government can’t stop you from joining groups such as trade unions, and that’s the idea behind freedom of association as a concept. So this wouldn’t apply to a students’ association.

But even if it did turn out that we were prima facie breaching the right to freedom of association, to my mind society seems to infringe upon rights all the time when it’s justified. For example, your right to free speech doesn’t extend to the right to yell “fire!” in a public theatre. I would say that with the vital service that we provide—the advocacy services we have on campus, the welfare we provide, the way in which we foster the student community and the student culture, I think it falls into that category—a totally justified limit on the very slim breach on the right to freedom of association that’s occurring.

Elliot: Can I just add a small thing—there’s opt in or opt out, none of the systems are compulsory. You have the freedom to opt in or opt out. You can opt in to AUSA, or you can opt out of VUWSA.

Matthew: What would be your comment on—in particular regarding VUWSA, where the opt-out clause is seen as being quite difficult to action, seeing as it requires the approval of a VUWSA-appointed body, and if the opt-out is actioned, the funds are subsequently directed to a charity of VUWSA’s choice. Do you feel that limits the scope of the opt-out option?

Elliot: Yeah, that’s not VUWSA or any student union’s fault. That is currently in the bill. So everyone has to do that. So that would be an area where parliament decide whether or not they want that—VUWSA’s just following legal procedures there. But that’s possibly an area to be looked at and maybe slimmed down. That’s up to the Select Committee, post-submissions.

Matthew: Another argument that’s put forward by the voluntary side is that, under voluntary student membership, associations have to sell the services to the students in order to bring in members. As a result, the services they offer are more tailored to what the students want. Since AUSA operates under a voluntary model, do you feel that describes your situation?

Elliot: No, because we provide the same services as before, we just provide a hell of a lot less of them. You don’t have to be voluntary or compulsory to know what students want—students tell you what they want. It’s really not hard. We just provide the best we can, but unfortunately it’s not as adequate as we would like.

Alex: And in terms of some of the services provided, like for example the welfare and advocacy services, they’re the sort of services that at the start of the year that you don’t think you’re going to need—usually for the first year who’s not familiar with the university structure and what happens—and if you find yourself in a situation by which you need them—suddenly you’re really short on cash or something terrible has happened, or again, you’re falsely accused of plagiarism and you’re forced before the disciplinary committee because you’ve been accused of cheating—in situations like these you don’t know you actually need the services until you need them.

In a fully voluntary model where you’re asking people to sign up, the importance of these services can sometimes be overlooked, and they would be the first thing to go as they’re not the catchiest services to sign students up to.

Matthew: Well that pretty much sums up what I wanted to ask. Are there any final comments that you guys would like to make?

Elliot: Yeah, a lot of what we sign students up with is not actually what they use. They like the diary and the wall planner, but welfare services are not sexy, and advocacy and class rep systems are not sexy. But at the end of the day, these systems are probably the most important things that any students’ association offers—the independent student voice to the university.

And even the universities themselves these days are seeing the benefits, academically and socially, for these things. This is the main point that I don’t want to see disappear from tertiary institutes.

Alex: People on campus have been asking us, “look, voluntary is a terrible thing, but you guys are already voluntary, so why are you fighting this bill so hard?” And that’s because we’ve had ten years of seeing the terrible effects of VSM. We were able to survive because of a very unique set of circumstances. We’re also noticing that we are no longer able to provide the things we were once able to provide, and how some of the services we provide we’re just not able to provide to a level that we’d be happy with and that students deserve. We think students deserve better and we just don’t see how that could happen under a voluntary model.

Matthew: Elliot, Alex, thank you very much for your time.

Elliot: Yeah, no, thank you.

Alex: Thanks man.

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