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March 8, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Lauren Brazier

Phone interview with Lauren Brazier, spokesperson for Student Choice—7.30pm Tuesday 23 February 2010.

Matthew: I’m speaking with a spokesperson from Student Choice, Lauren Brazier. Lauren, first of all, why do you support voluntary student membership in student associations?

Lauren: There are a couple of reasons why I support voluntary student membership. Firstly, compulsory student membership has been a terrible failure in that it has resulted in misrepresentation, waste and fraud. The second reason is that compulsory student membership violates an individual’s rights to freedom of association. Voluntary membership is based on the simple principle that individuals should be free to decide whether or not they join an organisation.

Freedom of association is actually found in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s got a couple of elements. The first is that you should be free to associate with others for legal purposes. The second is that you should not be forced to associate with others. So having compulsory membership in tertiary students’ associations actually violates that second element of freedom of association by forcing students to associate with others. There’s no real equivalent to that in New Zealand society—motorists don’t have to join the automobile association, pet owners don’t have to join the SPCA.

So we think that freedom of association is really important. Voluntary membership is the norm in New Zealand and true freedom of association would allow individual students to decide for themselves whether or not they wanted to join a students’ association.

Matthew: And what are some of the advantages that you feel that voluntary student membership would provide?

Lauren: Well, voluntary membership means that students’ associations will actually have to persuade people to join and meet their needs if they are to survive. Compulsory membership causes problems because it allows compulsory associations to exist regardless of whether or not they actually meet the needs and serve the interests of their members. They have a guaranteed income regardless of how they perform. So they can waste thousands of dollars, can misrepresent people, they can do whatever they want, and their members have no way of refusing to pay. And the next year, in fact, they’ll have to pay even more money to the association if they want to study, so that’s unlike how any other organisation works where they will suffer a financial penalty for poor performance.

Because all other private organisations do suffer financial penalties for poor performance, that means that they have to meet the needs of their customers if they are to survive. Compulsory membership allows associations to operate without any regards to the interest or needs of their members, whereas under voluntary membership the associations wouldn’t be able to take students for granted. They’d have to listen to a wider range of students, not just the small amount who are currently involved with student politics.

Matthew: What actions are Student Choice currently pursuing in support of voluntary student membership and Roger Douglas’ Freedom of Association Bill?

Lauren: Well, Student Choice has been promoting voluntary student membership for over fifteen years. Over this time we’ve gathered a huge amount of evidence to demonstrate the problems caused by compulsory membership. In the run-up to the vote we’ll be sharing this information to show how compulsory membership abuses students’ rights, misrepresents their views and wastes money. But I want to make it clear that we’re not anti-student association—we’re anti-compulsory membership in students’ associations.

Matthew: And if voluntary student membership were introduced, what do you think would be the effects on unionism and the university experience in general?

Lauren: I think voluntary membership would be hugely beneficial. With voluntary membership students can still form associations that can actually represent the interests of their members. Obviously, in the absence of compulsory membership, these voluntary organisations will have to attract members on the basis of the benefits they offer. So these organisations will have to persuade students with the value of becoming a member, and this will mean that the organisation will be more responsible to the needs of potential and existing members. It will mean that they don’t waste members’ resources or misrepresent their views, because if they do they’ll run the risk of losing members and losing income.

Further, voluntary organisations will be able to actually legitimately speak on behalf of their members because individuals will have given their permission through agreeing to join. So the organisation will represent them and their views. Currently there’s a sense of illegitimacy in terms of the fact that whenever student associations say something, there are always going to be people that disagree with it. Associations are currently having to represent everyone, but everyone has a diverse range of views.

So basically, it will make student associations more responsive and more legitimate.

Matthew: I’d just like to talk about some of the arguments that the compulsory membership side has been putting out and get your response on those. One of the main arguments is the concern that student advocacy and services will suffer under voluntary student membership. Circumstances in Australia certainly show that student unions have suffered under voluntary student membership, or at the very least the services that they offer have had to be dramatically reduced.

Lauren: I think you have to question what these services are. The premise of the question is that students’ associations spend money on things that are actually wanted by people. Under compulsory membership everyone pays, but the money is spent by a small group and only a handful of people actually use the services. For people who don’t want or need the services, their money is wasted.

In civil society outside of tertiary institutions, people buy the services they want, so voluntary membership will allow people to show what services they are prepared to buy. Voluntary representative organisations like trade unions provide advocacy because that is what their members want, and I think that voluntary students’ associations will be very similar to that.

Matthew: One of the other main concerns that has been issued is that, in cases where voluntary student membership has been introduced, typically the university will pick up the slack either by providing the services themselves or contracting them out to the students’ association. In those circumstances, the fees are still compulsory, but the students have less control over how much is being paid. In Australia, fees often doubled or tripled for the university to provide similar services.

Lauren: I think firstly you’ve got to remember that the Australian situation was quite different. I’m pretty sure that in the Australian situation they banned all funding for student unions, so that they couldn’t have a tendering process or anything like that to contract the services out to them. Secondly, if institutions decided that they wanted to put on a levy to fund orientation or a student magazine, that would be up to them.

What we think needs to happen is that the law should insist that institutions should make it perfectly clear that they are adding to the cost of tertiary education to provide X, Y and Z services. What we want to see is an increased transparency to see where exactly the fees you are paying are going.

Matthew: Now one of the other events that happened in Australia was that when voluntary student membership was introduced, the government had to provide a $120 million transition fund. Essentially, the burden was transferred to taxpayers. Do you think something like that might happen in New Zealand if voluntary student membership were introduced?

Lauren: I think there’ll be a transition period. But I don’t think that a transition fund, as such, would be a problem.

Matthew: One of the other issues you raised earlier on was the fact that, under universal student membership, students are forced to pay to join the association. In the case of some student associations, that is certainly true because the opt-out clauses are quite difficult to action. Would reforms on opt-out procedures and greater association transparency alleviate some of the concerns of voluntary membership advocates?

Lauren: I think that the opt-out model is simply a defensive move by people who want to protect association income because they hope that enough students won’t be bothered to apply for their money back, thereby leaving associations with more income than if it went to a fully voluntary model. I think that it won’t alleviate issues you have, such as not needing to persuade students to join, and increasing transparency and that sort of thing. It’s just people trying to hang on to the privileges of free money, if you will.

Matthew: And finally, I wanted to chat quickly about a proposal that Student Choice has been working on—positing an alternate model that allows for the ongoing provision of student services under voluntary student membership. Would you be able to comment on that?

Lauren: There are a couple of things to mention here. Firstly, the current model we have is where institutions and associations charge for services. Now we don’t want to stop institutions from charging, but we want students to have a choice about joining an association. We also want to see a lot more transparency and accountability around the fees that institutions charge to students.

The second thing to note is that the income received by associations under compulsory membership is artificially high. Under voluntary membership this income will drop—there’s no getting around that at all. Voluntary students’ associations will be in the same position as voluntary sports clubs, trade unions and sector groups. The services they offer to members will depend upon the amount of income they raise. It’s not really rocket science, it just means that students’ associations will have to join the real world.

Currently what we have is a situation where the provision of questionable services is being used as justification for compulsory membership of what is primarily a political representative group. This wouldn’t be acceptable anywhere else in New Zealand and we don’t think students should have to put up with it.

Matthew: So you’re basically differentiating between what might be considered essential or core services, such as advocacy, and secondary services such as clubs and political activity.

Lauren: Kind of. It’s up to the members of the voluntary students’ association to decide what that association should do.

Matthew: Thank you very much.

Lauren: You’re welcome.

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