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September 5, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Representation & Recreation: The Role of Students’ Associations

With ACT MP Heather Roy’s Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill looking set to be passed by Parliament before the end of the year, 2012 will bring about radical changes for students’ associations. While the pros and cons of Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) have been debated in the media, less attention has been given to the role that students’ associations should play in tertiary education. If there’s no specific definition given of what form a students’ association should take, or what its purpose should be, how can students question the practices of their representative body? In part one of a two-part feature, Salient co-editor Elle Hunt and news editor Stella Blake-Kelly explore whether we, as students of Victoria University, need Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA)—and if so, why.

Regardless of one’s stance on the matter, the cases for both Universal and Voluntary Student Membership make a bold statement about the purposes of students’ associations. While neither questions that when a person enrols in a tertiary institution, that person becomes part of a student community, the argument for Universal Student Membership relies on the idea that there can only be a strong student experience through a students’ association—and then, only if that association is Universal. But the VSM debate is further complicated in that it hinges on different interpretations of what a students’ association should be. Current legislation gives us no exact definition, so how do we know if ours serves us well?

The ambiguous nature of students’ associations means that the concept can be interpreted to meet the different needs of different student bodies. While one association might focus on providing representation at an academic level, another might prioritise ensuring students’ access to student-controlled or -directed services, such as student media and food bank initiatives. Either way, the emphasis of an association should be dependent on what its student body identifies as a priority.

“Students’ associations do things because their students have asked for them to happen,” says VUWSA President Seamus Brady. “It’s always evolving—you can never achieve the perfect student experience, because students change.”

Most students’ associations tend to focus on either acting as a voice for students, or as a service provider that supports the interests of the community. It’s reasonable to assume that a good association would achieve, or at least strive for, a balance between the two.

As co-president of the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations and 2010 VUWSA President Max Hardy notes, both roles are important.

“Students should have a say over their own education, and how a university is organised,” he says. “Institutions have a huge amount of power over students, so it’s really important that students have some independence for them to be able to protect themselves.”

Hardy points out that VUWSA’s other functions, such as welfare services and Orientation events, contribute to a well-rounded tertiary experience.

“These things are often linked to building a community, and about ensuring that students get the best out of their time at university.”

Brady agrees. “It’s not just representation; that’s why [we] provide all these other services. There’s more to university than going to class.”

In the past, however, students’ associations have prioritised a response to wider social issues, rather than academic concerns, reflecting the interests of students at the time. This reflects how a good students’ association is responsive to the needs of its body.

“In the 70s and 80s, students’ associations were extremely political places, and very much focused on external, international, political affairs,” Hardy says. “There was a far smaller student population back then, and a good chunk of them were involved or interested in those issues. There’s definitely been a move away from that as students have become more interested in looking after their education and their own experiences at university—and more interested in having their association look after their interests.”

But regardless of their focus, students’ associations can achieve little without the support and respect of the tertiary provider, and so a strong relationship between the two is fundamental. Both Brady and Hardy feel that VUWSA has succeeded in this regard in the past half-decade or so, although the former concedes that the success of the relationship is dependent on the personalities in question.

“[VUWSA and Victoria University] concedes that the success of the relationship is dependent on the personalities in question,” Brady says.

“In recent history, we went through a number of years where the reputation of the association was under a lot of strain,” Hardy remembers. “The esteem with which people held VUWSA kind of plummeted, and that was a big shame.”

Brady points out that Victoria “has its own priorities.

“There’s always a tension, but Victoria has recognised VUWSA as an integral part of what it’s trying to achieve—a strong student experience,” he says. “So it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

Victoria University’s Chancellor Ian McKinnon, who served on VUWSA’s executive as Men’s Vice-President in 1966, believes that this experience is as important as a good education, and that VUWSA contributes to achieving this balance.

“I want students to be very well educated so we really make a contribution to New Zealand society, but at the same time, I want them to be well-rounded, and [becoming] well-rounded actually comes from the experience and the opportunities that are available,” he says. “The student experience is a combination of the university and the students’ association working together.”

McKinnon goes on to point out that because students tend not to deconstruct that ‘experience’ (no-one thinks in terms of O-Week ’11 making or breaking their time at uni, MGMT or not), VUWSA’s work often goes unrecognised.

“I would think that the majority of students take it for granted that they are entitled to a good student experience at Victoria—that is, access to social, pastoral, sporting and access opportunities,” he says. “I suspect, though, that a lot of students wouldn’t relate that to VUWSA, so it probably doesn’t get as much credit as it should for its focus in those areas.”

“A lot of the representative work that associations do goes totally unnoticed by the bulk of the student body,” says Chris Hipkins, Labour’s Rimutaka MP, former VUWSA president and VUWSA life member. “Representation doesn’t have a monetary value.”

Regardless of one’s opinion of students’ associations, this is an important point. Few students reflect on, or engage with, their experiences at university in terms of the services and representation that a students’ association provides. The impact that associations have on ‘the student experience’ is difficult to evaluate, but it seems fair to state that the value of students’ associations exceeds the sum of its parts.

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  1. Thejackel says:

    “Current legislation gives us no exact definition, so how do we know if ours serves us well?”

    Yeah, because how is a private organisation supposed to have purpose or meaning if it isn’t defined in legislation??

  2. Michi says:

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  3. Anonymous says:

    So Ian McKinnon and his razor squad terminate two valuable papers in IR, one in Philosophy, lay off three valued lecturers, close down the Crime and Justice Research Centre, all as part of this years contribution to an ongoing programme of cutbacks; he will raise fees again this month, like every year, and here he has the audacity to tell us how to be students? telling us that we need to be more ‘well-rounded’ like him, admonishing us for taking University for granted, for not being social or sporting enough, and for letting VUWSA’s hard work (read: sitting round being a bunch of impotent bureaucrats) go unnoticed?

    I hate Ian McKinnon and his colleagues, they do nothing for students but reduce the quality of our education and make us pay more for it, and I hate VUWSA for letting them do it.

  4. parry says:

    what is the point of the representation you provide Seamus? there is a campaign to stop the cutbacks being coordinated as we speak by students that have nothing to do with VUWSA, because VUWSA is so utterly useless. i’m a criminology student, my whole degree is affected by the closure of crime and justice and not a PEEP out of the students’ association. i was reading the Wellingtonian the other day, happy to see some positive media coverage of the campaign to hold pat Walsh accountable for what he is doing, and you PUBLICLY DISTANCE YOURSELF FROM IT. you have probably done more to contribute to VSM than any ACT party hack.

    you make my skin physically crawl.

  5. Steven Joyce says:

    I think you’ll find it is me that is reducing the quality of tertiary education.

  6. 9 years of Labour says:

    Oi don’t take all the credit!

  7. Fee Maxima says:

    If it wasn’t for me you could simply bid up the price of criminology papers in order to keep the degree open!

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