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March 8, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Peter McCaffrey

Interview with Peter McCaffrey, Vice-President of Act on Campus—2pm Wednesday 24 February 2010.

Matthew: I’m speaking with Peter McCaffrey, Vice-President of ACT on Campus at Victoria University. Peter, first of all, why do you support voluntary student membership in students’ associations?

Peter: Well, for me the primary reason is the principled one where we believe that people should have freedom of association. Freedom of association is guaranteed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights and in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and it basically means that you get to choose what organisations you belong to, who you associate with—and equally, what organisations you don’t belong to. So you can’t be forced by anyone to join groups and pay membership money as well. And so that’s the principled argument for why people should be allowed to make those decisions for themselves, rather than having them forced upon them.

Secondary to that is that it’s much better to allow people to have these decisions for themselves. You end up with better results because having to convince people to join your organisation gets the incentives right on those organisations—they have to provide services that students want and need, otherwise people won’t join. They can’t do political crap like not laying wreaths or protesting against anybody, and all that sort of silly stuff. You don’t get the Workers’ Party protesting against the Green Party for not being left-wing enough using students’ money, because if it happened, people would actually be able to react by not joining the association in the future. Whereas at the moment, lots of people were upset by VUWSA not laying a wreath, and guess what? They’re all members again this year, and they’ve all paid another $150.

Matthew: So what are some of the main advantages that you believe voluntary student membership provides?

Peter: Well, the obvious one that everyone forgets is that everyone get an extra $150 in their pocket. So right from the start, students’ associations have to show that they are providing services that people would value for that money, if they want to have any kind of discussion at all.

Of course, I would argue from my principled position that, even if they are providing more services to everyone in the student body, they should still be able to choose. Just because you’re providing some services doesn’t overrule the right of people to decide for themselves. But I think they lose on both accounts there; I think that, principally, you should be able to choose, and that they don’t provide the services that people pay for with that money, so people are missing out.

So that’s the first thing—you have to remember that everybody at university gets an extra $150 in their pocket. They can then choose to use that to pay for student union membership—in which case they’re in the exact same position they are in at the moment. Or they can spend it on course-related things like textbooks and stationery. There’s a great quote by Meegan Cloughley in an Otago newspaper at the end of last year. She’s the President of OPSA, the Polytech Students’ Association at Otago. She said that under voluntary student membership, they would have to cut down on coffee and tea and stationery for the office because students wouldn’t join and would spend their money on things more related to their degree like textbooks—which I thought was a fantastic argument for VSM! But she seemed to think it was an argument to force people to join.

Matthew: So what actions are ACT on Campus currently pursuing in support of VSM and of Roger Douglas’ Freedom of Association Bill?

Peter: We’re preparing a submission to the Select Committee which is open at the moment. Submissions close at the end of March. And obviously we’ll be pushing VSM on clubs days around the country over the next couple of weeks.

Matthew: If voluntary student membership were introduced in New Zealand, what do you feel would be the effects on students’ associations and the university experience in general?

Peter: I think it would be minimal. There would be some effects—as I said earlier, you wouldn’t get silly political campaigning, you’d cut down on a lot of the wastage the associations have.

You can look at the budget for the last—actually it’s the previous year, because they still haven’t done last year’s budget—but you can look at the previous year’s budget for VUWSA, and basically 60 to 70 per cent of the costs of the association are administration costs—actual administration, office expenses like printing, wages for staff—what we’re talking about is 70 per cent of the association’s money goes on keeping the association itself running, rather than actually providing the services to the students. So that’s a huge wastage first off—any business that had 70 per cent administration costs would be out of business. The only reason it hasn’t happened to VUWSA is because every couple of years they can hold a meeting and force people to pay more.

So they’d have to be much more efficient, they’d have to provide services that students wanted and needed, and they’d have to be more accountable—like we talked about earlier, they can’t do crazy political stunts and expect people to still join voluntarily.

Matthew: Now I’d just like to talk about some of the arguments that the pro-universal student membership side has been putting forward.

Peter: You mean compulsory membership, not universal.

Matthew: Well, that’s something we’ll get to. We’ll start with something you said before about how, if voluntary student membership were introduced, you feel that it would have a minimal effect—apart from administrative costs and so forth. Now, looking at the Australian example, I think it’s reasonable to say that student unionism in Australia and the services they provide have suffered quite extensively since the introduction of voluntary student unionism. Do you feel that something similar would happen in New Zealand?

Peter: I don’t agree with the premise of your question. I don’t agree that the services have suffered in Australia. I’ve spent quite a considerable amount of time looking at what happened in Australia—probably much more time than Joel did when he was over there on the junket, although I didn’t spend any students’ money to go and research it myself, I did it on the internet.

There are certainly universities and areas where services have been reduced, but the nature of that is that those will be the services that people didn’t want, and that they weren’t willing to pay for.

A lot of the examples that compulsory student membership supporters have been giving are quite easily refutable, and I’m very glad you brought this up, as I came prepared. This is a submission that ALSF (Australian Liberal Students’ Federation) did in Australia to the recent bill that Labour sought to introduce and pass to go back to compulsory membership. It’s important to note that even the Labour government in Australia couldn’t get a majority to pass that bill—they couldn’t get a Labour-controlled parliament to go back to compulsory membership.

The submission by ALSF has a couple of great examples where they’ve actually gone to the universities, and what’s happened is that it’s in the students’ association’s interests to make it look like services have been harmed, and to make it look like they’ve declined so they can get the money. They’ve gone from an area where they can force people to pay them millions of dollars—in New Zealand, students’ associations get about $12 million a year, in Australia it was much higher—to a situation where they have to convince people that they are worth paying for. If you’re a business, you’d much rather people were forced to buy your product rather than actually having to convince them to buy it.

So a few of the examples I’ve got here: the RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) Student Union, they say on their website that “voluntary student unionism led to their advocacy services being scaled back”—which is true, they scaled back their advocacy service—but they increased funding to their radio show on 3CR called ‘Blazing Textbooks’, which is a show promoted as “promoting an anti-capitalist perspective on current issues and education from around Australia and the world”. So they decided to increase funding to an anti-capitalist radio show whilst cutting funding to student advocacy. So your assertion is right that advocacy declined at RMIT, but that was because of a decision by the executive. It’s not because they had less money—they just decided to spend money on an anti-capitalist radio show instead.

The University of Melbourne Student Union stripped their clubs and societies by 24 per cent—$18,000—to fund a $15,000 increase in their donation to the National Union of Students, which is their equivalent of NZUSA. So, yes they’re spending $18000 less on clubs, because they’ve decided to donate $15,000 more to the political campaigners who campaigned against the Liberal Party in Australia.

So I agree that, if you took the absolute dollar amount that’s been spent on services by student unions in Australia, I’m sure it’s gone down, but that’s all taken up by increased efficiency, getting rid of services that nobody actually wants, and by deliberately increasing things like that [University of Melbourne and RMIT].

Matthew: Now another thing that did happen in Australia was that, after voluntary student membership was introduced, a $120 million transition fund was set up by the government to ease the transition to voluntary student membership. Do you feel that something similar might happen in New Zealand?

Peter: It’s a possibility. But I think the situations in the two countries are reasonably different. The university funding regime in Australia is quite different, which meant that they needed to do other things. And also, the bill that was passed in Australia was quite different to the one that was proposed here. What was proposed in Australia prevents universities from collecting any fees for non-academic services to pass on—whereas in New Zealand, even under the current legislation, you look at Auckland where the university collects fees for services and then contracts to the students’ association to provide those services.

We’re not proposing to ban those sorts of things like they did in Australia. We’re completely happy with universities collecting fees for services and contracting students’ associations to provide them, as long as those contracts are open and transparent so you can see what’s been contracted for, you can see what the students’ association will be providing, and also that they’re contestable as well, so if the students’ association does a really bad job, somebody else can go to the university and say “we want to do this instead”. If it’s not contestable, then you end up in the same situation which you have at the moment where the students’ association can do as bad a job as they want and they’re still guaranteed funding from the university because the university can’t pay anybody else to do it. So long as it’s open, transparent and contestable, we’re fine with those sorts of arrangements. That allows—services will still be provided by students’ associations, but it gets around the compulsory membership and it gets around issues of the wastage and lack of accountability and political campaigning by students’ associations.

Matthew: Now, you mentioned something earlier on about how voluntary associations would have to provide services based on the wants and needs of their members. Something that’s been brought up quite often is the idea of student apathy, and that if students aren’t compulsorily signed up for a union, they’re most likely not going to join because they just won’t care. Do you think that something like that would affect the ideal model posited by a voluntary system?

Peter: Well, that’s just as much an argument against compulsory membership. If you’re saying that people don’t care about their students’ association and that’s why we have to force them to pay for it, that’s a pretty bad idea as well. Imagine if you came to university and you automatically became a member of ACT on Campus! Because, you know, we have a problem with apathy as well, we go to clubs day and we have to convince people to become members of ACT on Campus. It would be far easier for us if people were forced to join and pay us money. We’d prefer that! Well, not really of course, but it would be far easier.

So, sure, getting members is easier when you can force them, getting money out of people is easier when you can force them. I’m sure businesses would prefer if you were forced to shop with them. But that doesn’t make it right. And students’ associations should have confidence that they do actually provide services that students want, and if they do provide those services and provide them to a decent quality, then people will want to become a member. I mean, it’s not unusual—it’s how the rest of the world works. People become a member of the AA because they get the service that they want out of it and they’re willing to pay for it. People shop because they want clothes and they’re willing to pay for them. It’s how the rest of the world works, and compulsory is completely against how everything else works.

Matthew: Well that’s about all that I had. Do you have any closing remarks that you want to say?

Peter: I’m trying to remember what that quote was that was posted on the compulsory student membership Facebook page. It was something along the lines of “students’ associations are cheaper to provide services because people volunteer their time for them”. That was basically the thrust of their argument—if you make students’ associations voluntary, it’ll cost more because you’ll have to pay the money to the university, and the university has staff rather than volunteers.

I think that’s a really great example of the poor arguments we see from the other side because that assumes that, when you make it voluntary, the students’ association just disappears, and that nobody volunteers to help them anymore. It assumes that all those volunteers just go away and stop helping, and that you’re not getting any sort of help from them at all and you need staff to cover all of that. It’s also ironic because you’re complaining about people not volunteering to help an organisation that you’re forcing them to join. Wouldn’t it be far more efficient if we forced people to volunteer for VUWSA? That would make things cheaper, right? Because you’d have over 20,000 volunteers helping to provide services.

I think it’s just a perfect example of this idea that, if you change something, it completely nulls everything that exists at the moment. So you go from compulsory to voluntary and students’ associations will completely die, you won’t even see them anymore, you won’t get the services that it provides. I think that’s sad because it shows that the students’ associations have very little faith in what they’re doing at the moment. If they don’t believe that people will want the services that they are providing, that’s an argument not to force people to pay for them rather than an argument to keep forcing them.

And that’s what they’ve said on the Facebook group as well—that people wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for these services if you make it voluntary and they have to pay for them. Well, they have to pay for them at the moment. How is people not being able to afford these services a good reason to force them to pay for them? Wouldn’t it be better to allow them to choose whether they want them or not? The people who want them can get them, and the people who don’t won’t need to.

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

Peter: Sure.

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Comments (3)

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  1. Meegan cloughley says:

    ROFLMFAO nice misquote of me there Peter.

  2. s says:

    rofl nice delayed reaction

  3. meegan says:

    lol didn’t even know it was here until someone else pointed it out.

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