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September 12, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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In Theory. But in Practice?: VUWSA’s role within Victoria University

Last week, Salient co-editor Elle Hunt and news editor Stella Blake-Kelly concluded that, in theory, the purpose of a students’ association is to provide a combination of representation and services, as determined by their student body. But how does this work in practice?

In this, Salient’s Tertiary Education issue, we look at how the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA) serves its members, and explore how it could be adapted to suit a voluntary membership environment.

For much of its 111-year history, VUWSA has served as a platform for its members to respond to wider social and political issues, such as the Nuclear Free New Zealand Movement and the Vietnam War. In the 2000s, however, students are no longer as concerned with the state of their nation as they are with the state of their time at university. VUWSA has therefore prioritised the provision of representation and services to reflect the more self-interested demands of its membership. So, the association’s principal responsibilities within the Victoria University community is to act as a voice for students, and as a service provider that supports their interests—which, together, are understood to contribute towards that elusive ‘student experience’.

VUWSA serves as an advocate for students, both in terms of protecting them as a group from the commercial interests of Victoria University and supporting individuals’ grievances through the institutional process.“[Students’ associations provide] an opportunity for the student voice to be heard,” says Labour Rimutaka MP Chris Hipkins, who served as President during 2000 and 2001. “I actually think that’s one of [their] most important functions.”

In theory, VUWSA picks its battles on a basis of what its membership highlights as a priority. President Seamus Brady says that the association’s most recent activities have been guided by the results of the Student Survey conducted at the end of last year. This also means that, as the student community becomes more and more diverse, VUWSA has had to expand its forms of representation. It has done so with an increased number and range of representative groups—for example, the recent and much-publicised establishment of the Science Society, which is an example of how a rep group, overseen by a students’ association, can work to foster a sense of community on campus.

“As the student population grew more diverse, we [felt] we should be able to accommodate the changing student profile within our own association, so that we remained a legitimate representational body,” says Brady.

Over recent years, VUWSA has managed to build on this authority, adding to the credibility of its academic representation. Thanks largely to the efforts of incumbent Vice-President (Education) Bridie Hood, its class representative system is the best in the country, with 91 per cent of classes this year engaged with the scheme, up from just 44 per cent in 2009. VUWSA also employs several student advocates that help individuals with academic grievances make submissions to the University. Moreover, the Association’s improved relationship with the University has further increased its effectiveness: “If you constructively work with [the University], and maintain that independence from it, then you can have an impact on what you are trying to achieve,” says Brady.

Victoria University’s Chancellor Ian McKinnon—a former VUWSA executive member himself—sees a strong partnership between a students’ association and a tertiary provider as crucial to ensuring a world-class student experience. Brady agrees with this sentiment: “We often fill the gap that students identify is lacking, when they want something to happen—we built the rec centre back in the day,” he says. “We built the first library.” (It’s important to note, though, that both of these services are now funded by the Student Services Levy, not VUWSA.)

Today, VUWSA’s attention to the student experience has been realised on a grander scale with the Campus Hub redevelopment project—a huge undertaking that reflects what can be achieved when a tertiary provider and a students’ association collaborate. This also exemplifies how some of the ‘services’ that students’ associations provide are universal, and hard to quantify the value of—after all, even in a voluntary environment, it would not be possible to charge non-VUWSA members for using the Student Union Building or developed Campus Hub.

Students’ associations also provide services designed to create a sense of community and support students’ needs. In VUWSA’s case, this includes Orientation programmes, clubs, student media (such as Salient and The VBC 88.3 FM), and the food bank. The impact and importance of these services is hard to gauge, as they tend to involve a small but dedicated group of people. For example, with 1979 members, cultural clubs involve only 10 per cent of the student body; sporting clubs, with 822 members, five per cent.
Having said that, there is less pressure on VUWSA to provide cultural opportunities, as these are widely available in the central city. Moreover, core services, such as the library and recreation centre, are provided by the University. This goes to show how the concept of a students’ association can be adapted to reflect the needs of its student body: the University of Otago Students’ Association, for example, clearly prioritises recreation and entertainment over academic representation.

Under universal membership, VUWSA can speak for all students of Victoria University. This legitimises the association’s status as a student voice; as all students are members, it is assumed that VUWSA’s stance extends to that of the entire student community. But students have a wide range of views, and an automatic mandate is an unearned mandate. This argument is often voiced by supporters of Voluntary Student Membership (VSM), which—due to the persistence of ACT MP Heather Roy—looks likely to affect students’ associations from 2012.

VSM will greatly reduce the power of students’ associations, as, in a voluntary environment, they will only be able to speak on behalf of their members. But, argues ACT on Campus president (and vehement supporter of VSM) Peter McCaffrey, this is democratic.

“Representation is when one person allows another person to represent their views on their behalf,” says McCaffrey. “In a voluntary organisation, if you believe you are being misrepresented, you can leave so that that person no longer represents you.

“Unfortunately, because students’ associations are compulsory, if you think you are being misrepresented you can’t leave the organisation or refuse to join the following year. Voluntary student membership lets everyone decide, for themselves, whether they wish to be represented by their students’ association.”

McCaffrey is exaggerating. Even under universal membership, it is possible to disassociate oneself from one’s students’ association—it’s just difficult. Under current legislation, a student can choose to opt out, but the rationale must be ‘conscientious objection’, and their membership fee has to be donated to charity. Moreover, how this loophole is exercised is at the whim of the executive in question: a number of students’ associations nationwide have either conspicuously failed to publicise the option of opting out to their membership, or adopted policies with complicated withdrawal processes.

Even acknowledging that the current process of opting out is inadequate, it’s important to recognise voluntary and universal membership as ideological extremes. Universal membership assumes that a students’ association can accurately represent the views of an entire community, but this depends on its being transparent, accountable and engaged; moreover, it is impossible to represent all students’ views. But under voluntary membership, an association can operate only on behalf of its members—meaning that the university no longer has to recognise it as the voice of the student body. This would shift the balance of power in favour of tertiary providers, which has the potential to jeopardise the student experience: supporters of students’ associations often maintain that universities could and would not prioritise this if left to their own devices.

Voluntary membership presents VUWSA with a great deal of uncertainty. Will Victoria University continue to recognise it as the voice of students, or will it be reduced to being the voice of individuals? Will VUWSA still be able to appoint student representatives on the University Council and various committees? And how will those students who choose not to join VUWSA make their opinions known to the University?

Currently, VUWSA depends primarily on membership fees for revenue. Next year, with this certainty removed, VUWSA has two options: it can either be contracted to the University to provide services, or it can focus on soliciting for membership. Either way, the association will have to reflect seriously on its purpose and its goals to ensure that it does not lose sight of its responsibility to the student body, and the Strategic Plan, which was open for consultation in August, is a first step towards this. However, student engagement—which is how VUWSA remains relevant—has been low: for example, voter turn-out to elections and meetings has been consistently low. (In 2009, the meeting to approve the contribution of $12m of student funds to the redevelopment of the Student Union Building failed to reach quorum.) This apathy compromises the validity of VUWSA’s decision-making: if students aren’t letting VUWSA know how to proceed, how does it know it is making the right decisions?

This indifference is particularly concerning in the face of voluntary membership, when VUWSA will, in all likelihood, have to shake students out of their passivity for revenue. But for pro-VSM group Student Choice spokesperson Lauren Brazier, this is part of a democratic society.

“Students are smart—if you’ve got a good students’ association, they’re going to realise that,” she says. “I think that’s a problem that underlines the arguments for compulsory membership—there seems to be this assumption that as soon as membership’s voluntary, no-one’s going to join. But contradictorily, [students’ associations] say ‘Hold on, though we provide all these great services, no-one’s going to join us under VSM’. It makes no sense.”

More than ever before, under voluntary membership, VUWSA is going to have to be what students want it to be; otherwise, it will not have the authority to speak for the student body. But does VUWSA know what students want? If it did, would voluntary membership seem so devastating a threat? After all, as Brazier points out, VSM doesn’t, by definition, stop students’ associations from fulfilling their role: it will just make it harder.

In its current form, VUWSA might not have what it takes to meet the challenge. So will it have to drastically restructure? Will it have to cut all services, sell off Salient, give up representation and their mandate to speak for students as they become reliant on the University for funding? Only time will tell. The environment is changing, and VUWSA—as do all students’ associations—needs to adapt or die.

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Comments (3)

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  1. Magonagal says:

    RIP VUWSA

  2. Dr. says:

    By the skin of their teeth VUWSA cling to their stolen pay checks, below them circle the sharks, hungry after years of feeding on scraps. I’d love to be the toothbrush that scrapes the last flake of plaque from Seamus Brady’s illegitimate tooth of misrepresentation and watch him scream cowardly toward the deep dark seabed he has made for his cowardly bones.

    R.I.P VUWSA indeed.

  3. Lo says:

    Your extraordinary bitterness is ridiculous. Every major university in the world has a student association/government/council/union. Its part of what a uni community is about. VUWSA will stay. RIP nothing, shut up.

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