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May 6, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Sounding Out the Student Voice: Part One

“Established on the principle of partnership between students and staff ” to ensure “a strong and scholarly community,” Assistant Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Associate Professor David Crabbe told the Academic Board over a year ago.

He went on to explain the Student Forum as “a place for the student voice to be heard, and thus one place for the partnership to be enacted” and rejected claims that it was intended to replace VUWSA.

It’s been one and a half years since the Student Forum was passed by the University Council, and in that time—and despite over $100,000 budgeted for it—the Forum is yet to get off the ground and live up to the expectations of what was promised. With VUWSA, Ngai Tauira and Pasifika Students’ Council’s withdrawing in April; the failure of the University to organise (a mere) 20 students to take part since, and six student seats on the Academic Board and one on the University Council sitting empty, the University’s representational body is—quite frankly—a clusterfuck.

So, what’s the problem? What is wrong with the Forum, and what is going to be done to fix it? Herein lies a quagmire, where absent leadership and ineffective management is letting student and bureaucratic politics waste countless hours of time and resources.

Depending on who you talk to—whether they are currently or were a student representative, on the University pay-roll, are talking off-the-record, or even what day it is, it’s always a different opinion. Such differing understandings—or rather the absence of one altogether—has plagued the Forum from ever getting off the ground, since it was implemented as a result of Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) in 2012. Meeting after meeting didn’t result in much that was worthwhile. Did the fault lie with those who sat in the (allocated but barely ever completely filled) 35 seats? A little, but how can you say someone’s work is not up to scratch if you don’t give them a job description? Questions of confusion, of why they were there, what they were meant to do, meant forum members felt like they couldn’t do whatever it was that the University expected them to. As responsibility for the Forum was tossed amongst senior management like a hot potato, inconsistencies across staff amplified confusion. The student voice, which was was previously channeled through VUWSA, became fragmented with VUWSA having to compete and justify its mandate against rep-groups whose only purpose is to advocate for small sub-sections of the student community. The University had created a parliament in which only one party was forced to count its votes.

Adjusting to the new relationship-dynamics at play between VUWSA and the University only raised more questions. Whether it was malice; incompetence; not wanting to step on each other’s toes; being too nice, or being too mean, no constructive solutions to the problems that were plaguing the Forum and student representation eventuated.

In 2012 VUWSA raised concerns, restating what was said before the Forum was implemented in 2011, though there has been little evidence that the University has even attempted to address these concerns. ‘Wait and it will work out,’ was the advice (read: expectations) from the top of the University hierarchy. As compulsory student fees were redirected into the pockets of the University following VSM, VUWSA was scared of foe-turned-sugar-daddy Vic not funding its services which it could no longer fund itself. The Executive at the time decided to stick with the Student Forum and keep the extent of its concerns confined to their offices, for fear of what would happen to funding should they not participate in what the University intended for the student voice. ‘Acting in good-faith’ was the justification repeatedly thrown around.

They hoped to change it from the inside, pushing for consultation with students on how the Forum should function. After months of the University leaving its baby to find its feet, and failing miserably, the neglectful sugar-daddy took control of that consultation. It was disingenuous, and the questions gave the impression that the University really didn’t care what students thought of its Student Forum. There was no constructive substance to it, and quelle surprise, the results didn’t answer any of the student representatives’ questions and the Forum still didn’t know how or where it should walk.

2013 rolled around, and a new VUWSA Executive came in. After weeks of back and forth, round and round back-room discussions with the University, they eventually decided to leave, along with Ngai Tauira and Pasifika Students’ Council. A review of the Forum was always intended to occur later this year; VUWSA has managed to persuade management to extend it to include student representation and consultation as a whole. Apparently.

Herein lies another problem: The University’s grip on transparency and student (and their representative groups) participation in this restructured student voice. No-one has engaged in genuine free and frank discussion with students about what they want, or think about how their voice should be structured. Who’s to say this review won’t turn out like the last?

Students did not have a genuine say in the reorganisation of their voice, and it failed. Coincidence?

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