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March 8, 2010 | by  | in Opinion |
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Head to head: that VSM will benefit students

AFFIRMATIVE

Stephen Whittington

I have been asked to write about how students would benefit from voluntary student membership (VSM), so I think I should state upfront that I do not believe that all students will be better off under VSM. Joel Cosgrove would likely have been out of a job if he wasn’t able to draw down the salary of VUWSA President; some sportspeople will probably have to pay more to travel to sporting events; and the 70 per cent of VUWSA’s income which is spent on administration will likely decline, seeing some people find jobs elsewhere.

But the fact that some special and elite groups will be harmed by a policy is not a reason to oppose it. Just as tariffs impose costs on everyone to deliver concentrated benefits to a few privileged producers, compulsory student membership imposes costs on all students to channel money to a cabal of student politicians elected by a tiny minority of students. Of course that cabal will be worse off under VSM (which is why they so vocally oppose it), but students as a whole will be better off. We should oppose policies that sacrifice the general welfare in order to help the privileged few.

Moreover, the mechanism that leads to this privilege is itself immoral. As a student at Victoria University, you are forced to join the students’ association. The simple fact is that you are not given a choice over whether to join—you are forced to join and pay the fee that VUWSA sets. Now, those who typically have an interest in defending the status quo try to argue that you do have a choice—you can get over 2000 signatures and hold a referendum, or you can ‘conscientiously object’.

Let’s start with the referendum idea. The right to freedom of association is an individual right. The whole purpose of rights is to restrain what a majority of people can force you to do. Imagine arguing that Iran has freedom of speech because people could elect a government that supported freedom of speech. The argument is so obviously a nonsense that I am surprised supporters of compulsory association even bother making it. My right to freedom of association should not depend on the majority’s willingness to grant me that right.

But what about the right to conscientiously object? Well, in the first place, I am still forced to join the association. Then I have to get their approval to leave—and VUWSA have the right to donate my levy to charity (one of which is operated by VUWSA—a very clever money-go-round). The right to freedom of association is not just a right to make decisions over joining an association on ethical or religious grounds. I would rather spend the money taken off me by VUWSA on many other things. That’s not an ethical objection—it’s a practical one—but it’s one I should be entitled to make. If you would rather spend your money on beer than on VUWSA, you should be free to do so.

In fact, these arguments are not the worst arguments made by supporters of CSM. The worst argument is saying both of the following statements at the same time: “Students’ associations deliver really crucial services to students, without which university life would be bereft of fun”, and then “If students have the right to choose, most of them won’t join, thus destroying students’ associations.”

Which is it—are they so valuable, or are they so worthless that no one will join? Do student politicians really think students are too thick to make decisions for themselves? Students do a pretty good job at living the rest of their lives—I think they can also be trusted to figure out if it is worth it to join a students’ association.

Personally, I wouldn’t join a students’ association, because to me the cost just isn’t worth the benefit. It seems that I often end funding political protests that I disagree with (including the campaign to retain CSM), I am forced to purchase services that I will never use, and I am forced to be represented by idiots like Joel Cosgrove, who, so far as I am aware, has still to repay the money that he effectively stole from students during a trip to Australia.

And that’s the other major problem with CSM—when a group of students are forced to join something they would rather not, they tend to be apathetic. But when that association has a major budget, and very little oversight, then the people in control tend to help themselves. While Joel’s was the most recent, there has been unauthorised expenditure on a van (Geoff Hayward and Paul Brown), there has been $6,000 of calls made to psychic hotlines (Clelia Opie), and there has been outright criminal fraud (Wi Nepia).

Some of you may want to join a students’ association—and that’s fine, you should have the right to do that. But the best way to ensure all students get the maximum amount of benefit is to leave each and every one of them free to choose.

NEGATIVE

Jordan King

The Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA) opened its doors on 16 May 1899, and for 111 years it has gone about providing so much of what makes the university experience fun and worthwhile.

Students’ Associations provide a whole raft of services that, as members, you are fully entitled to access. At Victoria University, VUWSA provides entertaining things like orientation week events and gigs, clubs and societies (everything from the VUW Rowing Club to the Dungeons and Dragons Society), stress-free study week events, University Sport funding, and of course the very magazine you are probably in the process of defacing—Salient, which has been covering the highs and lows of campus life since 1938.

VUWSA also provides services of a more serious nature so you can access the help you need if things go a bit pear shaped. As members of VUWSA, we are all able to access free independent academic advocacy services if we have a problem with a course, a lecturer, or the university administration. VUWSA also coordinates student representation right throughout the university to ensure that from the teeming millions crammed into a LAWS121 lecture, through to the highest decision-making body at VUW—the University Council—the student viewpoint is heard and respected.

Through organisations like NZUSA (the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations—the national student body), VUWSA makes sure that Vic students have the ear of politicians, public servants, and the news media on education issues. In short, VUWSA is run for students, by students, and exists to advance student welfare and to go into bat for us to ensure we leave this place having had a high-quality education.

All this is about to be put at risk by a bill before parliament that seeks to take away student control over the important things above. Sir Roger Owen Douglas MP (born 1937, aged 73—some of you will remember him for his other not-so-bright ideas like hoiking off most of our state assets in the 1980s, proposing a flat tax of 25 cents, and his newly announced plan to bring back wage discrimination for young workers) from the ACT Party is sponsoring the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill, which seeks to remove automatic and universal membership of students’ associations and replace it with Voluntary Student Membership, or VSM.

Sir Rog’ & Co argue that the fact that we automatically become members of VUWSA and pay our association fee when we enrol at VUW is a violation of our freedom of association, therefore rendering all of us ‘shackled and oppressed’ by the current law. This is of course nonsense on a grand scale. Students in New Zealand are already free to choose whether or not their students’ association has universal/automatic or voluntary membership.

The Education Act 1989 gives students control over membership in two ways. Firstly, it allows for students to be exempted from membership on the grounds of conscientious objection or financial hardship—you just have to email the VUWSA president to ask. Secondly, it gives students the right to ask for a campus-wide vote on whether or not membership should be universal/automatic or voluntary. Many universities and polytechnics have had such votes over the years and the long term result has been that in 2010 all but one university has opted for universal/automatic membership.

The status quo has a proven track record while VSM has been a dismal failure for students wherever it has been introduced. We only need to look across the Tasman to see the effects of what five years of VSM in Australia has done to campus life there—independent advocacy services lost, clubs funding gone, student bars lost, orientation gigs in the hands of university administrators, international student services cut, the list goes on.

The Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill is a piece of legislation that was not designed to free you from the chains you never knew you had, but rather it is an attempt to silence the student voice and take collective decision making out of student hands. Politicians like Roger Douglas have always resented the principled criticism of students’ associations, especially when it frustrates an agenda like ACT’s that favours higher fees, restricted access, withdrawal of state funding to universities, and interest on student loans. This bill is an attempt to silence—it should be seen and fought as such.

Jordan King was a Co-President of the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations in 2009

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Comments (5)

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  1. Electrum Stardust says:

    King is absolutely spot on.

    What ACT is trying to spread (like a virus) is the idea that everyone should conceive herself as an individual ‘taxpayer’ first and foremost, ahead of other important considerations in life.

    As a university student, one should learn to think independently, and not let others tell you what to think (e.g. what constitutes real “freedom”). At the same time, one should help others do the same, as a ‘‘fellow student’, i.e. not just a ‘taxpayer’.

  2. Student student says:

    @electrum stardust: How can you say that Act is ‘telling people what to think’ when thats exactly what you’re doing, by telling people to think as ‘fellow students’?

    More importantly how about we let everyone decide for themselves whether they want to think of themselves as a ‘fellow student’, or whether they buy into the so called Act party line of thinking as an individual, by letting them decide whether or not they want to join a students association? If you think students are clever enough to make desisions for themselves you will surely support that?

  3. Tequila says:

    VSM works very well at the University of Auckland. One of the reasons is that it is organised, it knows how to prioritise its finances, the students are more discerning as regards who they vote in, the students have a more mature and responsible outlook. VUWSA is THE one place where VSM just has to be introduced asap. The organisation is a shambles.

  4. Tequila says:

    PS, God bless students associations but the way they’re run really is unacceptable. I’d be more inclined to join an SA if it was voluntary – and actually showed itself to be working on behalf of a significant number – as it did at Auckland. I’m a total lefty but I do not believe that Students Associations nowadays are worthy of this responsibility. We need smaller, context-specific student run organisations.

  5. Lauren says:

    Tequila – I fail to understand how you can argue that AUSA is well organised financially? Have you looked at their last set of audited accounts? They’re heavily significant debt!

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