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September 9, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Making Cents of Student Money

Purchasing a year of study at university is a transaction like no other. During an intense period of parental pressure, summer heat and anxieties about the future, most of us send away some StudyLink forms and sign away the next phase of our lives to debt. Sometimes the process has to be repeated, and we suffer the Kiwiana hold-music student induction. We fiddle with our courses and sign more forms, and eventually some people in some offices somewhere do some maths, and a few months later we get a pink slip and gasp when we see the size of our accumulated debt. In bold.

But what do we actually get for promising to pay back this figure in the future? You can’t account for your expanding vocabulary and critical-thinking progress into $100 blocks, nor weigh up whether $50 of your fees facilitated the intellectually stimulating conversation you had with a peer or the physically stimulating interaction you had with someone at O-Week. If you don’t think you got $30,000 worth of personal development upon graduation, you can’t take it back to a shop and get a refund.

Every year when you pay your fees, you give some for tuition and some for student services. And every year, they’re a little bit more than they were last time. The annual process of setting such fees is now upon us, and so begins Salient‘s attempts to fee-d you insights into how and why you’re going to be paying/borrowing more to study at Victoria next year.

This week Salient talks to VUWSA President Rory McCourt about the Student Services Levy (SSL), which is intended to pay for services that “contribute to academic success and a positive student experience”. Following the implementation of Voluntary Student Membership in 2012, the association has become reliant on funding from the SSL, and thus, reliant on the University.



Salient: Prior to VSM, VUWSA had an operating revenue of $2.25 million; in 2013 it’s less than $800,000. Which services did VUWSA cut following the loss of compulsory membership fees?

R: We’ve made tough decisions about cutting things like events, the size of Orientation, programmes like Campus Angels, and our reach to other campuses like Te Aro and Pipitea. While we’ve made big savings in finding efficiencies, there’s no fat left to cut. For 2014, we’ll be looking at the whole organisation and what needs to go to get to surplus. That might mean fewer events, welfare services and services like Student Job Search.

What did the University decide it would fund through the SSL?

We currently have contracts for Representation (Class Reps), our independent Advocacy Service and grants for Student Media (Salient), student engagement and welfare services. But it’s simply not enough, and we’re struggling to meet the needs of students and the University with such limited funding.

How did the University decide which services it would and wouldn’t pay for?

We put a proposal to University Management at the end of 2011, and again last year.

Are the decisions made by faceless bureaucrats in a dark room at the top of the Hunter Building?

In 2010 [VUWSA and the University] formed a joint oversight committee for student services called ACSSL. This body recommends the rates which all students are compelled to pay. ACSSL doesn’t deal so much with which services are included for funding under the levy, this is determined by Management. Management also determines the relative funding levels for each service. We’ve said that these important decisions need students at the table. It’s tricky though, because VUWSA is now one of those services and some have said that’s a conflict of interest.

What informs and guides their decisions?

ACSSL takes into account the views of students through the student representatives VUWSA provides, as well as the strategic goals of the University, Government targets around completion and retention, and surveys that canvass the views of students.

How has a student’s experience at Vic been worse without the VUWSA services that were cut?

The evidence shows that regular, engaging events, supportive welfare services and a strong sense of community on campus are all essential to building a great student experience, and helping us to achieve good academic outcomes. Undoubtedly, students have been shortchanged since 2012, still paying $650+ each but not receiving the level of service they used to pay less for.

The decision not to charge a membership fee for VUWSA was one that has certainly contributed to the reduction in VUWSA’s services —in hindsight, do you think that decision was the right one?

Charging a membership fee simply wouldn’t work. We offer a universal service, and so we have issues with freeloading. Everyone sees the benefit of better courses through our Class Rep system, and of having a student rep around the table to ensure clubs get a fair go when it’s time to dish out the funds. We can’t commodify that.

And actually, we wouldn’t want to. We take great pride in being an association of students doing things for the public good and the good of all students.

With your representational role being tied into the decision-making around SSL recommendations, do you think it’s fair to say there’s a clear conflict of interest?

I certainly think it has complicated things, and it’s situations like this that we warned the Government about ahead of the introduction of VSM. Make no mistake, VUWSA is a staunch association that knows that faithfully and honestly representing students must always come first; but over time, especially at other Universities without a strong and independent student voice, we have to wonder how long they will be willing to bite the hand that feeds when it really counts.

Does VUWSA have any other options for getting money to spend on things other than going to the University?

We have small amounts of income from other sources, such as car parking and lockers. We also received a $150,000 donation from the VUWSA Trust in 2012 to help plug our deficit, and this year we expect a smaller $100,000 contribution.

VUWSA has about a million dollars in its reserves, and since VSM it has just been eating into it with a deficit last year, and again in 2013 (about $200,000). Why aren’t you investing your reserves to help make VUWSA more financially sustainable, allowing the Association to spend more money on improving students’ experiences at Victoria?

We’re actually at a very difficult time for the Association. Just this year we’ve had to write a $100,000 cheque for a pre-committed office move. Now’s not really the time to take what is relatively little money and put it into risky active investments. Instead, we’ve built up the VUWSA Trust over the years to achieve that goal. While we’re always looking for the best return on those reserves, it is prudent to maintain them as we chart the stormy waters of VSM and University underfunding.

If you’re finding the current funding environment so restrictive, why hasn’t your Executive placed finding extra revenue sources as a priority?

This is a question for the Executive.

Has there been anything that VUWSA has requested funding for which hasn’t been accepted by the University?

We have requested additional funding to plug the significant hole in our welfare services that we currently subsidise considerably, and funding for a volunteer network. Both of these have not received funding to date. But we continue our dialogue with the University.

We will, as part of this year’s proposal to the University, be requesting full funding of the services we provide, and additional funding for events, representation, supporting rep groups and societies, and outreach to non-Kelburn campuses.

$676.00 is a lot of money to pay for a ‘student experience’, why do we even need more than just a lecture theatre, a babin’ tutor and a steady Wi-Fi connection to become a scholar?

The student experience is actually a crucial part of not only university life generally, but also for academic success. We know that students who receive support when they need it in terms of health, counselling, tutoring, and recreation services have a much higher likelihood of successfully completing their course and degree. Even those students who turn up to gigs and join clubs are more likely to succeed as they amass a network around them that can help them out when times are tough, assignments are due or their flatmates become unbearable.

While we might not use all the services everyday, they are there when we need them and they certainly add to our student experience.

If you look at the actual services students receive from the Levy, there are a lot that you can find elsewhere in Wellington such as the gym and crèche. Then there are also more direct duplications of services. Student Job Search is way more helpful than CareerHub, yet the latter is funded by SSL. Why should students be funding these services, that only some of us use?

Like any suite of universal services, there are some people don’t use and resent paying for. VUWSA’s job is to make sure the services we do have are as efficient as possible, and that their funding reflects where students want their money spent.

We’re working to identify inefficiencies and duplications like CareerHub doing the short-term placements Student Job Search does for free. Or the airport pick-ups for international students who already pay monumental fees to come to Vic.

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About the Author ()

Salient is a magazine. Salient is a website. Salient is an institution founded in 1938 to cater to the whim and fancy of students of Victoria University. We are partly funded by VUWSA and partly by gold bullion that was discovered under a pile of old Salients from the 40's. Salient welcomes your participation in debate on all the issues that we present to you, and if you're a student of Victoria University then you're more than welcome to drop in and have tea and scones with the contributors of this little rag in our little hideaway that overlooks Wellington.

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