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March 8, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Max Hardy

Interview with Max Hardy, VUWSA President—5pm Friday 26 February 2010.

Matthew: Okay, I’m speaking to Max Hardy, the President of Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA). Max, first of all, why do you support universal student membership in students’ associations?

Max: There are lots of reasons why I support universal student membership. I believe that only students can represent students, and believe that the work that VUWSA does in ensuring that we can get the most out of our time at university is really important. I think that the broad range of services that VUWSA provides with its representation services make the university a better place to study.

And I believe that we do that very cheaply for students—we do it far cheaper than the university would be able to. I don’t think students want to end up in a position where they are paying more money and receiving less services. And some of these are essential services, so that is probably what would happen in a situation of voluntary membership.

The reason why every student should be a member of VUWSA is that every student receives benefits from VUWSA’s services. Every student receives the benefits of student representation—our services are universal. And because they’re public goods, we can’t operate under a situation—it would cost a lot of money to operate under a situation where we had to restrict some of our services. And we see that in Auckland, where AUSA—which is a voluntary association—receives money from the university and spends a lot of student money just trying to recruit members. And I don’t think students want to be in that situation—they want to be in a situation where they’ve got quality services.

Students are the key stakeholders in what happens at university, and therefore they should have strong representation—and that means across university, we should have a say in what happens. And ultimately we’re a service-driven organisation, and all the services we provide—and I can go into them if you’d like—are important.

Matthew: Okay, so just continuing on that line, what are some of the advantages that you believe universal student membership provides?

Max: An independent advocacy service is one of the most important. We have a service whereby any student who is having some problems—either internally, so with one of their lecturers or course coordinators, or externally, so with their landlord—can come to our professional student advocate and that person can advocate on their behalf on that issue. We have a lot of students that come through and ask us to help them out there. And that not only helps those individual students—it also helps every single student at the university, because what happens is, if you have independent advocacy, and you have professional and effective advocacy, then it’s a preventative measure as well. It prevents lecturers from acting in an unfair way if they were going down that track. So every student benefits from the increased standards of fairness, and increased standards of academic quality of courses as a result of effective advocacy.

And that’s the same with effective representation—if you have a group of students who are looking out for the interests of students and are vetting the papers that go through an academic board or faculty boards, not only does that help with individual issues that come here, but it also makes sure that everyone is attentive to make sure that the students themselves are happy with the changes that are being made at university.

You can also go through all the services that we offer and say “that’s something we would lose if the bill in parliament went through”, and I don’t think students want to lose that. I think that all students benefit from a vibrant campus, so having orientation events and having clubs that are supported and representative groups that are supported that provide events on campus and help facilitate a student community, and student engagement with the university.

It’s all part of the student experience here, and we don’t want to lose that. And we certainly don’t want to spend more money on a worse service. I don’t think anyone here would like to have the university to be the people who are in charge of providing orientation and club support, and that’s because it’s not the university administrators’ speciality. And I’ve talked to them about it—they certainly don’t want to provide those services either. The university wants VUWSA to provide those services and to support campus life here, because it benefits the university and it benefits the student body, and they couldn’t do it as well as we do.

Matthew: So what are some of the actions that VUWSA is pursuing, both in support of retaining the current system and also in opposing Roger Douglas’ Freedom of Association Bill?

Max: We see one of our purposes as explaining to students what VUWSA does, and explaining to students what the situation would be if the bill went through. We’re not here to impose our ideas on anybody, and we certainly don’t want to tell people what they’re supposed to think. What we say is, “these are the services that are currently available to you, this is why we believe VUWSA is important to the student community here, and we would like you to support us”. And if they do agree with us—and the vast number of people come in here concerned about VUWSA and then we explain to them what VUWSA does and they actually go away much more excited about their students’ association, which is a really good thing.

So starting from O-Week, we’re going to start making sure people know what VUWSA does for them. That will be the most important part of what we’re going to do to try and educate the student community on the importance of supporting universal membership.

Matthew: Now towards the end of last year, there was a ‘Student Membership Committee’ that was set up to discuss opposing the bill. What is the status of that committee?

Max: The purpose of the committee was to facilitate engagement with the campaign for universal membership across the university community. And that’s still something we’re trying to do. We haven’t at this time reconvened that committee for this year, but we are considering doing that. We’re looking at other ways of doing that.

Matthew: Now one of the justifications that the committee put forth was that, in line with goal six of the VUWSA Constitution, it would ‘promote discussion and action as appropriate on issues concerning students as citizens’. Does VUWSA consider that that mandate also extends to discussing VSM?

Max: Absolutely, and that’s really what I was trying to get at before. We’re trying to promote discussion on this issue, and we’re trying to put forward—personally, I want to put forward my point of view, and as an organisation we want to explain to students what VUWSA does. I’ll put forward my personal view which is that we should have universal student membership.

So we do want to promote and facilitate discussion on this issue, and we think that, if we do, people will come down on our side.

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

Max: So you can take the Australian example. In Australia they had what they called ‘Voluntary Student Unionism’, and the result was quite devastating on the student experience on those campuses. In many cases you saw about a 40 per cent reduction in the people participating in clubs, and certainly a massive reduction in the quality of the events that clubs could put on and the funds they had available for themselves. People no longer engaged with the student community in their time at university in a structured way, which I think is really sad. I think that your whole student experience here is more important than the degree you get when you come out of university.

So you would see a reduction in campus life and a reduction in the community around campuses across New Zealand. And that would be very sad. You would also see students being levied by their university to provide some of the services that VUWSA currently provides, and the university will probably have to levy students more than VUWSA levies them, and they won’t be able to provide the same number of services. You will see a dramatic increase in the cost of providing independent advocacy—that’s if the current bill goes into force as it is currently written, at least.

And I think ultimately you’ll see a reduction in the quality of education that you receive at university, because you won’t have the coordinated student scrutiny of the university’s budgets, of the university’s professional and academic learning environment. Which is actually really important—a lot of students don’t realise that, but the university does have other priorities other than the students’ learning. It’s really important to have people around the table that know what they’re talking about that are advocating for students, their learning, and their academic environment.

So I think that ultimately students will lose out a lot under a situation of voluntary membership.

Matthew: Now I’d just like to address some of the points that the pro-voluntary side have put forward. The biggest one would be the idea of freedom of association. What would be your stance on that?

Max: Well, we have quite a clear legal argument which says that the current arrangement does not breach anyone’s human rights. That’s not what we’re out to do. People do have the right to opt out of membership of the association, and people should feel free that if they have any conscientious objection to being a member of VUWSA then they can go down that process. And likewise for reasons of financial hardship.

There are two main reasons why all students should be members of VUWSA. The first reason is that when you first arrive at university, to ask whether or not they want to be a member of VUWSA is not really a reasonable thing to do. Some of them don’t really realise, when they’re coming in as first years, they don’t necessarily know the importance of being a member of VUWSA. The second reason is that our services are universal—all students benefit from our services. The cost of restricting our services to certain students would be too great.

Matthew: Another argument that has been put forward by the voluntary side is that a voluntary students’ association would be more accountable. The associations would suffer a financial penalty if they weren’t providing the services that the students wanted. What would be your comment on that?

Max: Well, experience shows that that is absolutely not the case. Voluntary associations are the least accountable associations. VUWSA is, in my opinion, the most accountable part of the university—in terms of its accountability to students it is the most accountable. It is the body which holds the university accountable to students, and if you don’t have VUWSA then most of the money that students spend on education goes to the university, and if you don’t have a body that is holding the university accountable then—I think it’s important that you have a body holding the university accountable to students.

But I also think that VUWSA, being a body that is directly accountable to students, means that students have direct control over our finances. I think you’d be surprised that a lot of students come in to VUWSA, and a lot of them want to scrutinise where our money goes, and that’s actually really healthy. I personally really welcome the students coming into VUWSA and saying “I want to see the budget and I want to see you justify that budget”, because that doesn’t happen across the university. And it wouldn’t happen in a situation of voluntary membership because most of the money that a students’ association will get will either come from the university or through commercial enterprises.

So basically, in a voluntary situation, there is little to no proper accountability. So I think that argument is very misplaced.

Matthew: Now I’d also like to touch on the concept of radical politics. There have been historical cases where certain actions have been undertaken by VUWSA exec members that have caused controversy and have raised the spectre of VSM. Examples include Joel Cosgrove’s ‘I heart my penis’ and the ‘pimping out’ of the VUWSA van in 2007. Do you see this as a potential issue of compulsory membership?

Max: Firstly, VUWSA had moved on from that. We’re absolutely committed to being a professional, service-oriented organisation. Secondly, we’re well aware of our past mistakes, and we intend never to repeat them. And as an organisation, VUWSA is sorry for those mistakes.

I think that those mistakes have overshadowed, in lots of cases, the really good things that VUWSA does. But I don’t think those small incidences are, in the grand scheme of things, a big part of what VUWSA does. And we shouldn’t throw out everything that’s good about VUWSA just because of a few small things that have happened, that people have made a few small mistakes, that we’ve had some bad apples. So VUWSA have moved on.

And the final thing is that, if you’re looking at the difference between universal membership and the other option, in a voluntary situation would you lower the likelihood of scandal—in fact it would probably increase the radical aspect of the association. And that’s not something I want to see. It would increase the radical aspect of the association and everyone would get tainted. In a voluntary situation, the media and the wider public do not make the distinction between the voluntary association in New Zealand, which is AUSA (Auckland University Students’ Association), and any other associations. So I don’t think that students would benefit at all from not being a member if the association made mistakes.

Matthew: Just one more question. I wanted to briefly return to the opt-out clause that we spoke about earlier—specifically, that members can choose to opt out of VUWSA for conscientious reasons.

Max: Mmm hmm.

Matthew: Now historically, that clause has proven somewhat difficult to action. Do you feel that the opt-out clause needs any reform?

Max: Currently it’s relatively simple to opt out of membership of VUWSA. If you want to opt out on the grounds of conscientious objections, you can send a letter or an email to me, the president of the association, and provide a reason which should be relevant to conscientious objections, and then you should stipulate a reputable charity you want the money to go to. And there really shouldn’t be any problems. If you’re genuine in your resolve that—that you do have conscientious objections to being a member of the association, then there shouldn’t be any problems.

And, like we’ve said to the university council, if the student wanted there to be an external, or the university wants us to have an external group that dealt with opting out of the organisation, we’d be happy to explore that. Because we’re not interested in keeping people in VUWSA if they decide that they don’t want to be a member anymore.

Matthew: Do you have any final remarks that you’d like to make?

Max: I think that students should make their own minds up. And I think they should do that by looking at all the facts available to them. And they’re more than welcome to come into my office anytime and ask me to provide any information. The message that we’re wanting to get across is that students need to take responsibility for this university because we believe that students are the key stakeholders in this university. If we’re going to ensure that we are getting a quality education, we need to ensure that we have the mechanisms in place to do that.

And don’t let yourself be taken away by other arguments when the practical reality of the situation is that you don’t want to end up spending more money for less services.

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

Max: Cool.

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