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The $45,000 Question

Students finally get a say in their membership of the last compulsory union in New Zealand, along with what will happen to $45,000 of their money.

A referendum question is expected to be included in this year’s VUWSA elections over the continuation of VUWSA’s membership in the New Zealand University Students’ Association (NZUSA) after a request from a student. The question will read, “That VUWSA stay in NZUSA”, with “Yes, but only with reforms” and “No” being the answers available to students. The Executive has approved the question, referring it to the Elections Committee which is largely a rubber-stamping body.

At this stage the referendum will not be binding, meaning that if students vote not to retain membership, VUWSA will not necessarily pull out of the national body. While the VUWSA constitution does not allow for binding referendum questions, the Executive can make it binding by passing a motion to that effect at an Executive meeting. VUWSA President Rory McCourt is in favour of the referendum being non-binding, telling Salient the VUWSA Executive is best placed to make a final decision on NZUSA membership.

The referendum was requested by student Nick Cross, who said in his email [referendum request] to McCourt that NZUSA is “ineffective” and “no longer represents value for money for Victoria students”, especially given current deficits. The $45,000 membership levy VUWSA paid NZUSA in 2013 came out of VUWSA’s reserves, as their current revenue from contracts and services like car parks does not cover their operating costs. VUWSA’s 2013 operating deficit is expected to be $178,000, with up to a further $100,000 of deficit coming from capital expenditure.

“In addition to wasting student money, remaining a member of NZUSA will only forestall [an inevitable] decline and prevent students from being fairly represented on a national level … VUWSA members deserve to have a say on this issue,” said Cross, who hopes for a new national representative lobby for students.

Cross told Salient he was pleased with the outcome of his request but expressed disappointment at the wording of the question, stating it was unclear how VUWSA should act if students vote to retain NZUSA membership, but no reforms take place.

“VUWSA should have proposed a straight in-or-out referendum rather than asking whether VUWSA should leave NZUSA or remain a member ‘with reforms’.

“At this point, it’s completely unclear what these so-called reforms are: no specific reform proposal has been made public.”

The VUWSA Executive will be supporting the “Yes, but only with reform” option, though McCourt has told Salient VUWSA will not be supporting this option financially in the form of a major campaign.

VUWSA’s referendum is the latest setback for NZUSA in what has been a rough recent history, with the Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA) also planning to hold a similar referendum in their elections later this year. As reported in Salient last month, Waikato Students’ Union (WSU) President Aaron Letcher announced that WSU would “temporarily withdraw” from NZUSA, citing value for money as the primary reason. The move was criticised by McCourt, OUSA President Francisco Hernandez, and Auckland University Students’ Association (AUSA) President Daniel Haines as a “rash and hasty decision”.

While associations maintain NZUSA President Pete Hodkinson was made aware of dissatisfaction numerous times over the past 18 months, Hodkinson says he was blindsided by the criticism which came to the fore as WSU threatened to withdraw from NZUSA.

“I think [dissatisfaction] would have been much easier to engage with if that had been brought forward … maybe not quite in this heated, public, intense way, but a lot more directly, a lot earlier in the piece.

“The fact that this has come up quite late has made that difficult, but not impossible.”

It has been reported Letcher wishes to remove both Hodkinson and NZUSA Executive Director Alistair Shaw, and convert the full-time President position into two part-time Co-President positions to be filled by Hernandez and McCourt for the remainder of 2013.

McCourt would not comment on what he called Letcher’s “fantasy”, while Hernandez is reportedly too busy with his OUSA duties and a bid for the Dunedin City Council to take on an NZUSA presidency or co-presidency.

Presidents of VUWSA, OUSA and AUSA have said they would propose a series of reforms at the NZUSA Congress in early November to ensure their three associations—the three largest financial contributors to NZUSA—would have control of the reform process. These reforms include a more inclusive governance structure, a renewed focus on core services, and more student-relevant campaigns.

For more information on the referendum, see Eye on Exec on page 12, and next week’s Salient will include more information on the outcomes of staying in, or leaving NZUSA.

 

A RECENT HISTORY

Pre-2011

  • Compulsory student membership meant students’ associations, and thus NZUSA, had a steady revenue stream and maximum membership numbers

Late 2011

  • The Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill is passed, meaning membership becomes voluntary and students’ associations lose previously guaranteed revenue streams

  • NZUSA reforms to include polytech students’ associations, combines Co-Presidents to single President, and hires an executive director

  • Pete Hodkinson, from a polytech background, is elected President of NZUSA

2012

  • NZUSA loses $160,000—a third of revenue—as associations cannot afford levies any more, and levy for members is halved

  • NZUSA member associations begin to make their unhappiness with Hodkinson known

  • No confidence is elected as NZUSA President. Tears follow, and Hodkinson (the sole candidate) is re-elected shortly afterwards in a second round of voting

2013

  • Member associations’ unhappiness with NZUSA continues as Hodkinson tours the country running campaigns not seen as relevant to students, or student issues

  • WSU threatens to pull out, bringing waves of criticism of NZUSA into the public domain

  • Three largest association presidents, VUWSA’s McCourt, OUSA’s Hernandez and AUSA’s Haines announce they will propose reforms to the NZUSA Congress to be held in November

  • VUWSA and OUSA decide to hold referenda on their respective continued membership in NZUSA

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