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VUWSA has unanimously voted to withdraw from NZUSA, citing the union’s failure to reform and general poor performance.
The withdrawal could be the death knell for NZUSA, which has narrowly clung on to disillusioned students’ associations for the past few years.
NZUSA is the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations, with 14 students’-association members. Each students’ association pays an annual fee to NZUSA which is based on the size and financial viability of the association. This year, VUWSA’s contribution was $45,000.
In 2013, VUWSA ran a student-initiated referendum on whether it should continue its membership of NZUSA. The question read, “That VUWSA stay in NZUSA”, with “Yes, but only with reforms” and “No” being the answers available to students. The referendum was not binding. 63 per cent of VUWSA members voted for VUWSA to stay, with 37 per cent voting to withdraw.
VUWSA President Sonya Clark said that the promised reforms had not occurred, and there were better uses for the money VUWSA was spending on NZUSA membership.
“Students gave us the mandate to stay if there were significant reforms. There haven’t been. Now what’s important is having the conversation to make sure there’s a strong national voice on student issues, in a more effective use of $45,000 student dollars. We take our fiduciary responsibility with students’ money seriously.”
Incoming VUWSA President Rick Zwaan said VUWSA had had ongoing concerns with NZUSA “for years now”, and VUWSA could now decide how to spend the $45,000 levy “to effectively ensure student issues are on the agenda.”
“VUWSA has a history of standing up for student issues. We’re excited to see how we can continue to work locally and nationally,” Zwaan said.
Daniel Haines, President of NZUSA, said he was “disappointed but not surprised” with VUWSA’s decision.
“I think it reflects the extreme financial hardship that students’ associations are now facing. I also think it’s important that organisations review themselves and are critical of their performance, and that’s what this is.”
“VUWSA is one of our founding members, and hopefully we can continue to work with them going forward.”
Haines said he felt that NZUSA had delivered reforms, but it was clear VUWSA did not feel that way.
Nick Cross, who requested last year’s VUWSA referendum and is Policy Chair for the Young Nats, said VUWSA had acted in students’ best interests, and NZUSA had “never delivered advocacy that represented value for money.”
“The sooner it is accepted that NZUSA is dying, the sooner we can collectively have a discussion about alternative models for student advocacy on a national level.”
VUWSA’s withdrawal comes after the University of Otago told OUSA that their $45,000 NZUSA membership levy could not come from Service Level Agreement funds, and that OUSA needed to find the money from somewhere else.
OUSA’s Finance Officer, Paul Hunt, said this was because NZUSA services “only really benefit Executive members rather than students being directly involved.”
NZUSA has been in trouble since the implementation of Voluntary Student Membership in late 2011, where it lost its guaranteed revenue stream.
Following VSM, NZUSA reformed to include polytech students’ associations, and Pete Hodkinson, former president of Auckland polytech Unitec, was elected NZUSA President.
By 2012, NZUSA had lost a third of its revenue, as associations could not afford to pay as much in levies as they had pre-VSM. Students’ associations began to voice their dissatisfaction with the organisation, questioning the relevance and usefulness to students of what Hodkinson was doing. In 2012’s round of elections, Hodkinson lost to ‘No Confidence’, but was eventually re-elected after crying.
NZUSA’s troubles continued in 2013, as students’-association unhappiness increased and was brought to public attention. Then VUWSA President Rory McCourt openly criticised NZUSA in Salient, saying that NZUSA was failing to balance the needs of university members with those of polytech members.
Polytech associations tended to require basic core support from NZUSA, while larger associations like OUSA, VUWSA and AUSA wanted NZUSA to provide a national voice and be a focal point for campaigns and lobbying. McCourt claimed that Hodkinson had “struggled to straddle that divide,” and did not share VUWSA’s vision.
The Waikato Students’ Union (WSU) threatened to pull out of NZUSA and has not paid levies since, and both VUWSA and the Otago University Student’s Association (OUSA) held referenda on their continued membership. OUSA members overwhelmingly voted to remain a part of NZUSA “if it implements reforms that enhance its campaigning capacity”, with 84 per cent of students in favour.
Both the OUSA and VUWSA referenda were criticised for phrasing which was biased towards a vote in favour of remaining in NZUSA. Both association presidents at the time – Francisco Hernandez at OUSA, and McCourt at VUWSA – planned to run for NZUSA president the following year. That ambition would have been compromised had either association withdrawn.