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March 18, 2013 | by  | in Opinion |
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The McCourt Report

Time for the Student Voice to be restored.

Making sure you’re heard by the Uni is the single most important thing that VUWSA and I do. It’s why we were founded 114 years ago, and it’s why we’re still around today. While the foodbank, diaries and wall planners are great; students’ associations are here to facilitate the student voice and represent the wishes, needs and ideals of you, our students. Why? Because uni is a community. It’s a community that you’ve paid thousands of dollars to join, that you’ve worked hard to arrive at. It’s only right that you should get a say in how those dollars are spent, and how your education is delivered. Not as a consumer, but as a valued member of this community, as a student. The people who sit in the place you now occupy in the decades to come will thank you for taking the opportunity to make Vic better. That’s why we as students helped to fund the Boyd-Wilson field redevelopment, and the construction of the hub through the VUWSA trust.

Having students involved in decision-making, consultation and the planning of a university’s future can do wonders for lifting educational quality. The research suggests that universities with strong student representation and consultation systems have higher pass rates, more responsive staff and better policy-implementation success in all sorts of areas.Any successful organisation understands the importance of quality feedback.

How does it work? Well, let me give you a fictitious example: Rory is a class rep for POLS111. Rory’s mate, Akino, says the lecturer talks too quickly, and the lecture theatre is too cold so no one comes on Tuesday at 9am. Rory then talks to the lecturer as part of their Monday coffee catch-up and by Tuesday the lecturer has slowed down her quick Kiwi slur and the room is a comfortable 20°.

The fact is that small, proactive interventions like this can mean a world of difference, not only for students freezing their arses off, but for any university which seeks to understand how students are doing in a given course, school, programme or faculty.

Victoria is actually really good at acknowledging the value of this kind of approach. That’s why they run the class-rep and faculty-delegates system in partnership with VUWSA: because it’s valuable to have students speaking up for students. It’s also why the University has  made sure we’ve had a strong, independent students’ association.

Voice goes beyond the kind of smaller interventions I mentioned: it includes students having a say on those major changes which will affect those who have yet to study here, like programme reviews and the funding of crucial support services. In this year’s review of services, as an example, students have huge opportunities to let VUWSA and the University know which services you think ought to be introduced, reduced or changed. you might want a dental clinic at Vic, or less funding for that awful Salient rag. The point is, it should be your choice to make, it’s your money. Keep an eye out for the Student Experience Survey; it’s another great way to have your say.

The idea of students speaking for students in the ways they find comfortable is one you’d think is pretty basic, and pretty widely held in a place like Vic, right? Well, many student leaders are worried that Vic has switched off to hearing your voice.

Why would we think that? Well, in late 2011 senior University Management recommended dropping VUWSA as the primary representative body at Vic. It was in response to ACT MP Heather Roy’s Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) Bill. The bill said nothing about primary representative bodies, it just said that the Uni couldn’t force you to join a students’ association (which is fair enough). The rest was really up to each university. in a misguided rush to comply with the law the Student Forum was born.

“But what is the Student Forum, Rory?” I hear you eagerly ask. The Student Forum is the university-created primary representative body that appoints student reps to over a dozen important boards and committees across the University. Its delegates can and do cast votes on behalf of you for everything from course changes in Japanese studies to the level of fees for Law. Last year, some students who sat on the Forum were appointed by the University itself. the three meetings that did occur in late 2012 were dominated by members of the Forum wrestling with fundamental questions: who am I representing, how did I get here? Legitimacy comes from the student body, not from a document. You have to earn representation.

What is most concerning is that students have paid over $100,000 to have it set up and run in its first year, despite the fact we have never had a say about whether we even want it. VUWSA raised concerns in 2011, and numerous times in 2012 about the legitimacy, accountability and undemocratic nature of the Forum. Management has not sufficiently taken those concerns on board, and in frustration VUWSA, Ngāi Tauira (the Māori Students’ Association) and the Pasifika Students’ Council have announced we will be not attending another Forum meeting. We’re pulling out. We’ve said we all want a place for discussion with everyone at the table, but that the Forum isn’t that place. We need a system that recognises and values a strong, independent student voice, that allows us to come together as a student body. it makes sense that the democratic and accountable students’ association is at the heart of that, with the resources and history to be able to facilitate conversations and champion the voiceless.

The law does not require the Forum to exist. VSM-paranoia has pushed otherwise cool heads to implement a solution to a nonexistent legislative problem. Some have forgotten the importance of an independent student voice in the process. Student voice does not exist merely to tick a consultative box. It exists because people are entitled speak for themselves.

Mistakes like the Forum can be avoided simply by listening to students and their representatives, and by empowering students to have some self-determination around how that voice is heard. this isn’t about student politics; it’s about learning from our mistakes and restoring a crucial voice for everyone’s benefit.

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