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September 30, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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When Sonya Met Thomas

Thomas Maharaj
– 21
– 2nd year
– BA in Public Policy and International Relations
– From Wellington
– Previously involved in Young Labour

Sonya Clark
– 22
– 3rd year
– BA in English and Sociology
– From Hastings
– No political affiliation


Why are you running for VUWSA President?

Thomas: Because I see the needs of students, and I see those needs in some respect not being met. I believe I’m in the best position to advocate on behalf of the student body for fairer fares, and for warm, dry, and safe homes. And I also have the policies that I’ve had looked over by decision-makers.

What are the needs that are not being met?

T: Things that I’m seeing are our key core services.

When you say ‘our’ do you mean VUWSA’s or the University’s?

T: Sorry, the University’s. But I believe that if you’re President of VUWSA you will have a greater degree to advocate on behalf of all students for the necessity services that could benefit their well-being.

So what are the ones that are not being met?

T: Counselling’s a big one, I think about ten per cent of Victoria students use it, and it’s important that we make sure that it’s adequately funded. And there’s a service review next year, that’s really inspired me to get engaged with VUWSA because we have a little bit of a say in that decision-making process to get students a better deal.

What are your visions or priorities for what you’d like to see changed?

Students are paying the service levy fee, but they want to know where their money’s going and actually know what that money is getting put into when it comes to key core services. One of the other things is welfare, and I think if you come up with some sort of financial plan to enhance the profits that VUWSA is getting then you can actually do more for students. And it’s about finding adequate ways of getting financial assistance for VUWSA, and working with that to benefit things like welfare at satellite campuses.

Sonya, why are you running for VUWSA President?

Sonya: I’m running for VUWSA President because in my year on VUWSA I’ve learnt a lot, and there’s a lot of things I want to keep working on and change for 2014. I have the experience as Academic Vice-President, with working with students, staff, student media, and a range of representative groups in making sure that students are heard at Victoria. I’ve also gained a really good knowledge of VUWSA’s position and where it needs to go in the future. And I think that I’m best placed to lead VUWSA for 2014.

What do you think needs to be changed or built on?

S: I think that for VUWSA, the finances is an issue. Our current financial position is that we’re living off the income from lockers, the income from carparks, grants from the VUWSA Trust and contracts with the University which often come up short. This is not a sustainable way to live, it’s not a sustainable way for VUWSA to go into the future and I think that there needs to be a clear financial strategy articulated that will have a plan on how to best use the reserves that VUWSA has, to make sure we’re not so dependent on the University for income. Otherwise we compromise our ability to speak for students when we’re meant to be holding to account the same people that fund us.

Where do you expect to get this financial plan from?

S: I think an external review needs to be done from VUWSA, so whether that’s Deloitte or that sort of thing. If we’re using our reserves currently to fuel our operations, they could be much better used looking at that long-term stuff, so I’m looking at an external review. I also think [the Publications Committee] should do a comprehensive review of the advertising for Salient and the VBC for the next ongoing years… It needs to be externally done, working with our current management and also the VUWSA Trust. Advice, essentially.
Thomas, what do you see as the greatest challenge facing VUWSA at the moment?

T: Communication. I bring this up because the election was delayed, the election [was pushed out for three days] and yet we could not find three people to fill positions as one decent proposed candidate for a position on the executive. I think we need an executive that’s going to be reflective of the people at the University, and it’s got to be an executive that students know what it’s actually going to do for them. Voluntary Student Membership, since it was enacted in 2011—we need to ensure that the university students’ association is going to do for them, what we are doing as a whole and the vision we have for students going forward.

Communication is obviously something that VUWSA has been criticised on for a number of years, do you have any plans, ideas or strategies on how to engage VUWSA with the thousands and thousands, and thousands of students who don’t know—or give a fuck—about what it does?

I think I will say this election this time round has probably gained a lot more traction than what a usual election does, which is something positive in that respect. Advocation [sic]. When [students] see that the association is doing things for them on their behalf, they’re more likely to get engaged with it.

Yes, but how are you going to do it? Pay someone? Talk to students? Change the Facebook page?

I think something we’ve lacked to do in the past is advertising—a lot of students don’t know where the free bread is; a lot of students do not know that we have a food bank. Satellite campuses is one thing—we don’t advertise at a lot of satellite campuses. If we can get the message out to them; even if it’s just things like posters in the libraries that advertise where the welfare is, or if you set up a helpline that students can engage with which students know how to get to because it’s advertised everywhere around campus.

Obviously advertising costs money, but VUWSA doesn’t have much—how do you plan to fund this?

T: I think it’s about time that VUWSA starts going beyond its horizons and finds new sources of income. The way things are currently, VUWSA’s only got five or ten years left in its lifespan. That’s really sad. We can turn this around. We’ve got to negotiate contracts to ensure things like O-Week; if we can outsource those events and get them out to a wider range of people, we could have better events; cheaper tickets; bigger venues. Another thing I am optimistic about—and it’s just an idea, and would need to be consulted with students—is to charge a $30, one-off fee to join VUWSA. But it’s just an idea.

Sonya, what do you see as the greatest challenge facing VUWSA at the moment?

S: I think finances is one of the greatest challenges.

Why are they important?

S: If we don’t have a plan for the finances in another 5-10 years we would have kept eating into our deficit and we won’t have a VUWSA anymore. And I think it’s really important that VUWSA is still around, to still do welfare services, to speak up for students, to run campaigns on things that matter, and to still serve students at Victoria. I think it’s important that VUWSA is here in ten years, and that’s why I think finances is possibly one of the most pressing issues.

Why would an executive that you lead be any different to the Executive this year, that you’ve been a Vice-President on, which hasn’t really done anything about finances?

S: Some of the things we have done this year: coming up with a three-year funding proposal for the University, which hasn’t happened previously. So we’re negotiating a good financial future for VUWSA at the moment. We’ve also had much more free and frank conversations with the University about where gaps are in funding, and what we will be prepared to walk away from if funding gaps are not met. So that might be lost property, orientation—if not enough money is there then I think we need to have some lines put down.

The University obviously holds pretty much all the power in this, and it requires a bit of politics from VUWSA to steer those negotiations… Are you confident you can get a better deal for VUWSA than what it’s getting now?

S: Yep, I am. I think the important thing about politics with University management is having a good relationship, in the sense that you can be straight with each other but there’s a mutual respect there. I think I’ve built that up through the student-representation review, by working with a lot of the staff that decide these things. Negotiating, but staying strong to VUWSA’s values. And I’m absolutely capable of that.
Having been a student at Vic, what things would you like to change in your role as VUWSA President—what could the University be doing differently?

S: We’ve just performed really well in the PBRF, but teaching and learning needs to be improved upon. There’s lots of great academic staff, but they’re under a lot of pressure to produce research outputs. There are tutorials that are gradually fading away, especially in the Arts, and I think that that is something Victoria needs to improve on. That said, it’s also an issue with most New Zealand universities. The student experience is a major thing. Otago obviously sees value in the student experience and value in creating a student culture where people are really proud to be from that University—our University needs to work on that as well.

T: The one thing I pointed out was underfunding key core services. The University is underfunding services to a certain extent—like I said, students wait three weeks for a counsellor—and that’s one of the reasons why I ran this campaign.

So you want to advocate for the Uni to provide more services?

T: Yes, for students.

S: So Tommy, you say that the University isn’t doing services well enough, and that’s funded by the Student Services Levy. If you want really really good services, do you then support a significant increase in the Student Services Levy, because counsellors are obviously quite expensive? Students said in the last round of consultation that they wanted more counselling, but they also wanted a lower Levy.

T: When I look at what’s more important, I see students that need to go to a counsellor, and that service not being met. There needs to be a reallocation of service funding—that could be taken into account when we review it next year. It’s one of my dreams to be a part of that.
It’s election year next year: what are the tertiary-education issues that parties needs to be addressing next year?

S: We’ve got student support—that’s loans, allowances, and student hardship—students are working longer hours than ever. On the other hand we have general funding for the tertiary sector. The average government contribution per student in all subjects except Science and Engineering (I believe) since 2012 have been frozen at those levels. Costs are rising; universities are receiving less funding, and I think that the universities and the students’ associations need to be speaking up about that.

T: There are a lot of students from separated families, and students have one parent who earns a big income, and one parent who earns a low income. Generally, once you go to University, you’re not going to get the funding from the Government, and let’s just say your Dad didn’t give you funding—this happened to me for a couple of years—so what are you left with? I had to drop out of Massey because I could not afford to go to University. I got the loan costs, but paying rent and everything else, and having no support was really hard.

So your issue is around who is eligible for student allowance —you think that’s the biggest thing the government needs to change?

T: It’s the way they assess eligibility—I’ve seen parents who go overseas and live in Fiji and own big sugar plantations, and because the parents are overseas, that’s zero income, so the student gets a student allowance—plus their parents are supporting them. How would we look into new ways of working out parents’ sources of income? I see that as really important.

And tertiary education funding cuts as well.


Do you support interest on student loans?

Sonya: No
Thomas: No

Would you advocate for the Government to repeal VSM?

Sonya: Yes
Thomas: Yes

Would you get a VUWSA cat?

Sonya: No
Thomas: No

If you could have any act of your choice at O-Week 2014, who
would it be?

Sonya: Beyoncé
Thomas: Jay-Z

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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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