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October 4, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Close Encounters of the Presidential Kind

It comes down to a choice between the dude with all the experience, and the dude who has none, but has a fresh perspective. Salient Editor Sarah Robson talks to the two people who want to be your VUWSA President next year—Seamus Brady and Paul Smith.

Seamus Brady, 22

Studying: History, Politics, and a brief flirtation with Japanese
Political affiliations: Has been involved with the Labour party, currently only has time for it in his spare time, of which he has very little. He says it is “easy to divorce work from politics”.

Paul Smith, turning 21 during election week

Studying: History and Philosophy, and a little bit of Politics
Political affiliations: No active party memberships, not particularly partisan.

Sarah: Why do you want to be the President of VUWSA?

Seamus: I’m standing because I’ve got the experience, the commitment and the vision to make sure VUWSA is a strong force at Victoria. I believe that someone with my experience is needed—someone who has been involved in the various stages of VUWSA, and also the planning for the future of VUWSA, and how we operate. That’s one of the core reasons why.

Paul: I’m standing because I’m a member of a club that I really like and I’ve been a recipient of VUWSA’s services over the past few years I’ve been here, and I kind of value what they do. I’ve noticed how it’s been getting better and better since 2008, and before I was even here. And I saw the challenge that VSM’s got and I think I’ve got a lot to offer. I personally think it would be a challenge for me, but also I’ve got a lot to offer in terms of a fresh look at things, so I don’t think it’s experience that necessarily entitles you to a role, but I think it’s more about the kind of vision and how you can refocus VUWSA.

Sarah: How and why does your experience qualify you to be President?

Seamus: Since [the] VSM [bill] came in, I’ve been working quite closely with last year’s President, and Max this year, and also with the Association Manager and the VUWSA Trust, in setting up contingency plans, I guess. So when VSM did come in, might have come in by now, is coming in, we wouldn’t be left with nothing—we would have something that would kick in in Orientation 2011, so that students, and new students especially, knew what VUWSA was and why they should be a member, and then why in 2012 they should remain a member. The experience has given me huge opportunities to work with the university in terms [of] building up relationships and also be involved in negotiations in terms of how VUWSA will fit into post-compulsory student unions. So, I think that’s one of the main advantages of having experience, having experience you know that you need to change and are open to change, and so I don’t think being experienced is a bad thing, I think it’s a very positive thing.

Sarah [to Paul]: Now you haven’t been on the exec. Have you ever been to an exec meeting?

Paul: For VUWSA?

Sarah: Yup.

Paul: I went to a couple in my first year in 2008, they weren’t that fun and then I went to the AGM last year, but you’re right, I haven’t been to many exec meetings.

Sarah: Given your relative lack of experience, how are you going to get up to speed with the inner workings and institutional history of VUWSA?

Paul: I think I’m passionate enough and driven enough to learn about it and to figure it out. And I don’t think the only way you can learn about it is by doing it—I think it’s a bit of a myth really. I think there’s a lot of people who will be willing to help me and get behind me and figure out how to keep the institution going, like people with a lot of institutional knowledge and those relationships. I think the constitution provides for the incoming President to spend the month of December working with the President, I’m not sure if that’s often been the case, but there’s certainly opportunities there to get the knowledge from other people and I certainly think I’m able to learn it fast enough for it not to be an issue.

Seamus: I think it’s important that you start the year [by] hitting the ground running. I don’t think a month is long enough to get to grips with sort of how internal VUWSA works—but then also VUWSA works externally with JSUB, with SSALC, with the Student Union ,with everything that sort of falls under VUWSA, so I think that’s why past Presidents who haven’t had experience previously, even just for a few months, have got to a rocky start and I don’t think they performed as strong as they could have, had they had that experience.

Sarah: What’s your vision for VUWSA in 2011?

Seamus: A VUWSA that is visible and is active around campus, that has regular events that are well-attended, well-promoted, strong student reps at all levels. This year we’ve had a huge, huge transforming of the class rep system and reps on all the various boards at the schools. It’s the first time we’ve been surveying class reps and asking them how they feel supported, what do they need, do they feel isolated and all the results from that say, yeah there’s some issues but, overall, we’re doing a great job, and VUWSA should be doing X, Y and Z and we’re taking that on board. The student representative structure needs to be strengthened and reviewed and that’s something that this exec and myself have been focused on with the working party that is going into general sort of representation. That will be a major focus as well, actually putting it into practice, consulting the students about what they think VUWSA should do.

Paul: My vision is to create a VUWSA that people are really proud of and want to pay to join, because that’s what we have to do right? It’s not just to carry on with all that we’re doing this year, and look at all the different projects that are going to make it easier for students or better for students, to the point that they’re going to go ‘I’m willing to pay for that upfront to get benefits’. I think we need to work on relationships with satellite campuses, or campuses other than Kelburn basically, because there’s lots of students there and there’s lots of students who only go to Karori or Te Aro. Obviously, there’s a need to engage with them and get them to pay membership fees. VUWSA has realised this year that that’s an issue, that’s something as well that as part of my vision I want to focus on.

Sarah [to Seamus]: How are you going to make VUWSA more visible and more active?

Seamus: Firstly; we would have a proper events calendar that properly identifed everything throughout the year, when they were happening and then actually go out and promote it—not just postering, actually using our website, using Facebook and just having the VUWSA exec actually go out and not just stay in the office and sort of hide away as they have done.

Sarah [to Paul]: How are you going to engage with the satellite campuses?

Paul: I think that’s a good point about going out and talking to them and not just hanging posters everywhere. I think it would be quite a good idea to make someone on the executive their official responsibility, or part of their official responsibility, to be dealing with those campuses and looking at ways to get them more into VUWSA, more into the VUWSA hood.

Sarah [to Paul]: Do you think that’s a viable option given that exec members have a big workload already?

Paul: I know what you mean, it wouldn’t just be one person who gets every other satellite campus, but that’s more to do with making it more official for the clubs officer or the activities officer that part of [their] brief is to look at some really good activities at other campuses, and we expect you to come up with a couple of activities in Karori and Te Aro as well. So, it’s not adding a massive workload to everybody. It’s just making it more clear that they need to engage people outside of Kelburn, not just people in and around the core or what you think is the core of the university.

Seamus: On the presence, I would be using existing staff members that we have, people like the student advocate, people like the clubs and events manager, actually stationing them, especially the student advocate, at places like Te Aro, which historically have a lot of issues in terms of work and student finance—they do a weekly clinic down there and they’re always booked and that’s something that will be happening next year. And that instead of just having one exec member burdened with ‘you have to do this every week for two hours, if you don’t do it, people won’t have service’, but actually just making an allowance within the existing staffing structure to enable that, but to also have the exec come in to support the staff down there, so students can talk to them and they can find out what people at Te Aro want and what STUDiO want.

Sarah: This year has been one of significant changes being made by the National government and Steven Joyce to tertiary education.Your thoughts?

Paul: I’m kind of pissed off actually about VSM, because they didn’t seem to listen to any students, instead they seemed to listen to just what the Act party was saying, or just to what the Young Nats were saying, not really what the wider amount of students were saying on the issue. I find that quite disconcerting, that they’re prepared to go against an entire group of people and just ignore what they have to say on the issue. It seems to me like VSM is pretty much going to pass, it seems like it’s basically a government-run committee that would send it through, and there was a Labour party minority report and a Green party minority report which couldn’t derail it. It just seems like it’s go ahead caucus. So it sucks what they’re doing to students at the moment and we really need to deal with it, and that’s why this election is important. But I think there’s a lot of space for advocacy and keep trying to get to the National [government’s] ear about this particular bill, because we can try and get clauses inserted which would make the transition easier and try and get funding from the government for students’ [associations] and these sorts of things.

Sarah: But the government has ultimately cut funding to the tertiary sector and Steven Joyce has actually come out and said there is no more money for teriary education. If they’re not going to fund institutions, why would they fund students’ associations?

Paul: I see your point, I think though when it comes down to it, when you’re dealing with governments, there’s always money if you can make it real enough to them that they’re losing votes for whatever they’re doing—they can always put money and divert it from other places if you can get right in their ear and you can get advocating—you can go you’re turning off a whole generation of students from the National Party who are going to grow up thinking you ruined their students’ associations. So I think at the moment you’re right, it’s easy for them to go there’s not enough money to help our students associations…but if you can keep advocating, if you can keep in their ears, you can try and get more stuff.

Sarah: Would you rather see Steven Joyce increase funding to institutions or supporting students’ associations?

Paul: I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. If they give more funding to institutions and that kind of stuff, it means there’s more space for Vic to help out VUWSA with the transition and to step in and provide some services we want without raising funds and that kind of shit.

Seamus: The National party should see students’ associations as a partner in tertiary education, because both of us want to see cost-effective courses, strong courses that are worth actually spending money on and investing your life into, but also Steven Joyce is interesting because it was being reported that he spoke against the National party caucus supporting the VSM bill because he saw the pragmatic side, the benefit of having a students’ association on campus because they did stuff that the university couldn’t afford to, and with his latest issue with student services fees and institutions like Victoria increasing them…what happens if the institution can’t charge a levy for a students’ association but also [has to] reduce the student services levy and they can’t add one on to the other. [Joyce] sees the pragmatic issue, but the National party did seem to listen to a vocal minority.

Sarah: What do you see as being the main issue facing the tertiary education sector?

Seamus: Well I think it’s continued under-funding. For the last 15 years, it’s been continually under-funded and the cuts they announced last year, with not increasing it by the CPI, is effectively cutting it every year by more, so it leads to managed enrolment, it leads to things like student services levies going up so they don’t have to spend the money they get for courses on student services, but it just leads to a more burdened sector that has to increase fees for students because they’re the only ones who can give more, which then increases debt, which is not what the government wants because it is just more burden on their accounts.

Paul: I think underfunding is the most massive issue and it only comes from a wider problem in terms of maybe how this government, and maybe how all governments see students. I don’t think they see them as a priority necessarily and I don’t think they recognise how important education is at the tertiary level to the future of New Zealand, so they’re prepared to let fees just increase, they’re kind of prepared to let people be turned away from universities because there’s not enough money to pay for them.

Sarah: How would you go about increasing voter turnout and engagement with the association?

Paul: I think there’s a couple of problems. One of them is sometimes—not this year—VUWSA doesn’t seem particularly credible as an organisation, sometimes we’ve had executive members do silly things. So, one thing I would do, and I’d promise that I’d do, is just be accountable as a president and to hold my exec to account so we don’t lose crediblility from that. But also I think there’s a lot of space to bring VUWSA more into people’s lives by delivering more services to all of the students out there. I’ve been thinking quite hard about having your student membership provide you with a discount card, and to work with businesses around town to get you discounts on coffee and food and that kind of thing, And if we can set up a situation where being a member of VUWSA gives everybody a big benefit, people will start to value VUWSA more. So, not only will they pay for their membership which will let us pay for Campus Angels and all the kind of services VUWSA provides at the moment, so not only will they pay for it, but they will be more engaged with it and more interested in it if they know the organisation is credible and accountable and if they know that they’ve got something invested in it and they get something out of it.

Seamus: I don’t think judging voter turnout is a very good reflection of students appreciation of what VUWSA does and sort of how much they like it. I think in the past probably six years it’s been probably more of a reflection on actually the exec as people and people not wanting to associate themselves with them and be attached to be people who get drunk and write love all over the wall and do things to vans and things like that. I think it’s increasing that communication from day one, or even before they get to Wellington. Like sending them something in November saying this is Orientation coming up, this is what is happening and this is what we’re planning to do for this coming Orientation, and the University is allowing us to join up with their mail out to first years. On the card for members, VUWSA is currently at the moment, with our sales manager and association manager, working on a discount card. Before we launch it we want 30 businesses at least and the response so far has been very good, people are keen to get on, but by the end of the year there will be a discount card ready to launch and obviously be available to new students […]

I don’t think a membership card is the be all and end all of increasing turnout or just appreciation of VUWSA. And I don’t think we should assume that we will be charging people a membership fee […]

Once we have assessed our situation with the VUWSA Trust, with the university and various other things we could do, I think there could be a good chance we won’t be charging a membership fee and then there’s just a matter of getting people aware of VUWSA, doing things like combining Victoria’s Orientation and VUWSA’s orientation, so people see both and it’s branded as both and just getting the message more coherent, I guess.

An extended version of this interview is available online at salient.org.nz.

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About the Author ()

Editor for 2010, politics nerd, panda fan and three-time award-winning student journalist.

Comments (1)

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  1. smackdown says:

    seamus brady has been with vuwsa since 1953 i think its time he got to sit in the big kids chair

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