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March 8, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Maryan Street

Interview with Maryan Street, Labour Tertiary Education spokesperson—12noon Wednesday 24 February 2010.

Matthew: I’m here with Maryan Street, the Labour Tertiary Education spokesperson. Maryan, first of all, why does the Labour Party support universal student membership in students’ associations?

Maryan: We support that because it has proven to be a very good way for ensuring that certain services and advocacy are made available to students in universities and polytechs and wainanga. Without it, it is not at all certain that the universities or other institutions would be either willing or able to provide those services. So, for me, it looks like a useful form of unionism and we would support that.

There is a provision for a majority to elect whether there is compulsory or voluntary membership at any campus. But for me, when people are coming in to an institution for the first time, they’re not aware of what services are provided by students’ associations. If it were to become voluntary, people would simply look at their fees invoice and see that there is a voluntary fee here, they would typically, I think, elect not to pay it—who wouldn’t?—because they’ve got no idea what services are actually provided.

So it seems to be that voluntary student membership isn’t about the pure philosophy of choosing to join and freedom of association. It’s about providing protection and services for people who don’t know that they might need them before they do. If you don’t have it available for first-year students, or if it’s entirely voluntary to join a students’ association for first year students, then by year two you’ve got two cohorts of students; by year three at the end of their degree, you’ve got three whole cohorts of students, and the services become history. And then, it’s very difficult to build them back up again.

Matthew: Now, just to go into that a little bit further—what are some of the advantages that you feel universal student membership provides?

Maryan: I think first of all that membership of a students’ association provides access to democratic representation. That’s a really important thing for me. For example, if you have students at Victoria—which is my old university—who belong to the students’ association, they’ve got somewhere to go to represent their voices at the highest level, because the students’ association is represented on the university council. And that’s a way of representative democracy working on behalf of students.

So there’s that function, and I think that is profoundly important. And it’s good practice for students—if they think that their association is undemocratic, then get in and fix it! It’s about training in citizenship, and I think that’s really important. You train at a university in the context of a students’ association, you learn how to participate, how to change things, and how to represent other people fairly and in a principled way. And sometimes you learn that from bad examples, and sometimes you learn it from good examples. But that’s a fundamentally important thing.

The next thing, I think, is advocacy. And that’s not about representation at the university council, but that may be advocacy in disputes of all sorts—admission disputes, disputes with other students, conflict with lecturers or heads of department or deans of faculties. The further you get up the academic tree, the more intimidating it can be for a student to assert that they have been hard done by. And to have the kind of advocacy that students’ associations provide available for very low cost is a huge benefit.

So, again, students may not need it—they may not need it from one year’s end to the next—but all of a sudden, they may find that a tutor or a lecturer turns into a sexual harasser, and they need somebody to go to bat for them. And that’s a hard thing to do when the person you’re taking on is the person who’s grading your essays.

Matthew: Could you identify and describe some of the actions that Labour are currently pursuing in support of retaining universal student membership?

Maryan: Right. Of course, now it’s orientation week so we’ve got Labour stalls at most of the large campuses around the country. So at most of the urban centres, you’ll find that there is a Young Labour stall on clubs day in orientation week. I’ve prepared some materials that aren’t as wordy as last year’s, but something that’s more direct and a bit more eye-catching and will convey something about what the Labour Party believes on tertiary education.

Inside that information is our opposition to the VSM bill. We are clearly wanting to let students know that we oppose the VSM bill, and we will continue to oppose it. We think it will contribute to a lesser experience for tertiary students on their campuses, and we will fight it.

In addition to that, of course we’ve got the usual things like fliers, timetables and calendars, those sorts of handouts; information about Labour activities on campus—because they can get very interesting, noisy, engaging, argumentative, a good place for people with lots of opinions to cut their teeth and see if they can foot it in politics.

Matthew: I’d like to talk about some of the opinions and arguments put forward by the voluntary student membership side, just to get your opinion on those. One of the crucial points, and one that Roger Douglas stresses very strongly, is the idea of freedom of association.

Maryan: Of course.

Matthew: Now what would be your comment on that?

Maryan: The neo-liberals, of whom Roger is the king I suppose in New Zealand, would always take the pure freedom of association argument. Now freedom of association is a fundamental ILO (International Labour Organization) convention that I’m very much in favour of, but that usually means, for me, the freedom to join something. As I was saying a moment ago, if you’ve got a regressive policy that is going to be incremental as the years go on—so in year one, from the moment you make this bill law, then every new intake of students, every new cohort, will not know what the previous cohort knew about the services that were available, and so on.

Because they don’t know until they get to the campus, and quite often they’re paying their invoices and doing their enrolment online without really getting to the university to find out what’s available—what does the students’ association do for me, and what are the services it provides, what are the facilities that my money goes to—they don’t know those things until they get there. So what we have is a form of voluntary/compulsory students’ association at the moment, which I think is fine because there is the ability to choose whether to make a site compulsory or not. I think that’s a reasonable choice simply because there is a new intake every year and that it’s not realistic, given online and distance enrolment procedures, to expect that students will be informed about their choice.

Matthew: I’d just like to follow up on that point around students not electing to join an association under a voluntary system through not being aware of the services. Voluntary advocates would state that it would be the role of the association to actively sell and promote the causes that it champions and tailor them to the members that it is trying to entice. Do you believe that a system like that would alleviate any concerns over new students not joining?

Maryan: I think that is the pure argument. The actual practice of how things work, as I said a moment ago, is that with students enrolling by distance and online—it’s different from in my day when you queued. You went up there and you stood in the student union building and you got into the papers that you were enrolling for—I mean, this is a hundred years ago—that was a kind of physical, in situ, ‘it’s all going on around me and I can see what’s happening’ process. Now we’ve moved to a much more detached, disassociated online system, and a lot of it happens electronically.

So to expect that, in year one, the students’ association will have its resource base cut by who knows how many tens of thousands of dollars—or hundreds of thousands of dollars—to expect them to function with that, getting out to students who haven’t even set foot on the campus yet, is just naïve. And I think it is simply a smokescreen that the right wing use, and they pick up the language of democratic participation to express what is effectively an effort to shut down organised participation.

Matthew: Now one of the other concerns that has been issued by voluntary advocates is that certain clauses in students’ association constitutions, such as the ability to opt out, are quite difficult to action. Using VUWSA as an example, opting out requires approval of the VUWSA exec, and subsequently the money is then donated to a charity of VUWSA’s choice. Do you believe that clauses such as opt out might need modification under a retained system of compulsory student membership?

Maryan: My second discipline at Auckland university was industrial relations, and so I liken this all the time to union membership. That’s why I use those ILO conventions and those sorts of yardsticks. Now in our industrial legislation we do have opt-out provisions and they are usually on religious grounds. And, in fact, I think always, on religious grounds only, that people object—religious or philosophical grounds—that people object to being compelled to join something, even if it is by a vote of a majority of people, so it’s a democratic decision resulting in some requirement to join.

It may well be that an opt-out provision needs to be looked at again, because if the opt-out provision is being distorted or misapplied or not exercised prudently by an executive, then that needs correcting. I would support people’s right to opt out, and I wouldn’t support the efforts of any executive to undermine that process.

But in the end, when people opt out, they make a conscious choice to do that on the basis of knowledge and information. Where Roger Douglas’ bill goes is to prevent opting in on the basis of that same knowledge and information. So people don’t know what they are turning down when they first arrive at a campus. I wouldn’t like to see any students’ association distorting the purpose of an opt-out provision—I think it’s an important safety valve.

Matthew: Now earlier on you identified the core function of advocacy in students’ associations. Do you perceive there to be a difference between core functions such as advocacy and welfare, and secondary functions including clubs and social events and so forth?

Maryan: I think there are three things, and I only talked about two of them to start with, that students’ associations offer. One is democratic representation within the university structure, the second is advocacy, and the third is a variety of services. So it may be that they run a building, they run a cafeteria, they run cheaper facilities and cut-rate facilities, provide access to the university gym. At some universities the students’ association might own and run the gym, and at others they don’t, but by being a student association member you get a discount to join the university gym.

So all of that is service provision. I’d put social events in there too and service provision. It’s not just about having a microwave or a locker or something like that that you can access, but it’s also about contributing—hopefully in an orderly way—to the social experience of being a student. I mean, it’s a fantastic time in one’s life, and there’s licence to do all sorts of things. And there are people who are leaving home for the first time and coming to an urban centre like Wellington. I loved it, and I would like other students to have that kind of social/political/cultural exposure that even running social events provides. I think that’s a service, I do, and so I would lump that in. I mean, I’m not so keen on events like ‘how much can you drink in one sitting’ or ‘how many pies can you stuff down your face’, but in the end, students should have some licence to experiment in a sympathetically controlled environment. And I think that’s what students’ associations can provide.

Matthew: And just one final question—in what ways to the policies of Labour on student membership, and tertiary education in general, differ from those of National?

Maryan: They couldn’t be more different. At the momenMatthew:t we’ve got a National government that sees no purpose in the tertiary sector, given its statements to date. I don’t know whether Steven Joyce will be different, but Anne Tolley never at any point recognised or even acknowledged the role of the tertiary sector—not just universities, but universities perhaps in particular—in helping New Zealand accelerate out of a recession. When jobs are scarce, people take the opportunity to upskill. There should be investment in the tertiary sector, not divestment, which is what we are seeing coming from the National Party at the moment. So when you look at investments in Australia and the UK, even though times are tough—and perhaps the United States is a better example than the UK at the moment for investment in tertiary education—you see government with an eye on the future. The lack of additional or significant investment in our tertiary institutions makes me weep, because it’s so short-sighted. It’s such impoverished thinking. And I’m just hopeful that the new minister, Steven Joyce, can do something differently than the old one.

We [Labour] would lift the student cap, allow more enrolments at this time. Instead of threatening students with making loans harder to get, we’d be looking at paying out what would essentially be an investment in our future by lifting student numbers and by providing compensatory funding to the institutions in order to carry those extra numbers. So not expect the institutions to carry them unfunded, but in fact to put the money in, make the loans and allowances available for increased numbers. It’s a big-ticket item, but it seems to me that you can’t plan any kind of productive future for New Zealand without investing in the tertiary sector.

And that’s a distinctive difference between us.

Matthew: Well, thank you very much for your time.

Maryan: That’s alright!

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