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Your two candidates for VUWSA President this year are Liam Gallagher (no, not that one), and Jono Gee. To try and win you over, they came to the Salient office to talk about stuff. The conversation began with some awkward chat about socks—Jono had some snazzy Barkers numbers on, and revealed that “I choose my socks first, then the rest of my clothes around it.” Ever the Southern Man (he’s from Christchurch—that counts, right?), Liam had chosen unseasonably thick woollen socks, which he “regretted”. “My feet are hot,” he complained. Outstanding.
Thankfully, things improved from there. You can read the rest of the interview below. Warning: this article contains student politicians talking about themselves.
Salient: Why are you running for President?
Jono: This year I’ve been Academic Vice President at VUWSA. I’ve really enjoyed my time here standing up for students in the academic sphere and I’m really keen to push that forward next year. Obviously for me it was a commitment this year not just to be Academic Vice President, but a commitment to VUWSA as a whole. So that’s why I want to run for President next year—I want to continue my vision from this year.
What’s your platform?
Jono: I’m campaigning on “a better deal for students”. The reason I’m pushing for that is what I’ve seen in the academic sphere—we pay $5000, $6000 in fees every year, yet we don’t get the same kind of quality education, same level of services for that. As Academic Vice President I feel really aggrieved in the academic sphere and I think that extends to other parts of the University as well. So that’s why I’m running for a better deal for students when it comes to your fees.
A better deal for students when it comes to your city as well. So, developing those relationships with the local council, the fact that it’s the local body elections next year is a really good opportunity for VUWSA to lobby City Council candidates for student-friendly policies.
Liam, why are you running for President?
Liam: Having come up this year to study at Vic, I thought the students’ association’s not nearly half as visible as it was where I was studying previously, at Canterbury. So I thought maybe a good outsider’s point of view, to bring some spice to the organisation, was necessary—the sort of community that exists at Canterbury and Otago with the student body doesn’t appear to exist in the same way up at Vic. So I thought a new approach, an outside approach from someone who hasn’t been involved in the organisation before, could help to bring some new ideas.
And what’s your platform?
Liam: I’m running on a platform of “a better experience for students”. The best student experience in New Zealand is what we’re going for. Vic is already internationally rated as one of the best universities in the world, I think academic life is fairly good, but I think it’s important to actually have a community of students who care about these things first. So, to build that community by creating a better student experience.
So what specific ideas can VUWSA import from UCSA?
Liam: Well specifically to Wellington, more collaboration with the other students’ associations and student groups in Wellington, so Massey, Weltec, Whitireia, to create that scale that we need to create the larger events, the more inclusive events, and to help support clubs through more funding and greater interaction to produce those sort of results.
So how do you see VUWSA being able to improve management of clubs given VUWSA’s not the ones in charge of them?
Liam: I don’t see the problem as who’s in charge of the clubs, it’s more about the interaction between the clubs—for instance, the law society and the science society working together to coordinate events.
Jono: I definitely agreed with Liam that we have to improve the student experience, particularly in the area of clubs. I guess for me, I feel I have taken an extra step in that sense in that I’ve already developed relationships with the law students’ society, with the Victoria commerce students’ society, with the Studio over at Te Aro campus, and other student societies and clubs as well. Also on the campaign trail this week I’ve managed to talk to a number of club presidents and hear their concerns. Their relationship with [university] clubs management at the moment is very transactional—even when it’s trying to get a venue booking it’s been very difficult for them. I think there are very, very real issues there, but I think I have a vision to make that better for those clubs.
One thing that’s often noted about the student experience in Wellington as opposed to Christchurch or particularly Dunedin is that the student population in Wellington is scattered and decentralised, that there’s about half a dozen campuses in Wellington. So do you see that being a significant issue and if so, what would you do try and overcome that geographical challenge to improve the student experience in Wellington?
Liam: So in Dunedin they’ve got the Forsyth Barr stadium, they use that for all their O-Week events, and also they’ve got the Zoo—every time there’s a Highlanders rugby game there, there’s a student area. We can do the same thing here at the Cake Tin or the TSB Arena, to provide a central focus for the different campuses to join in.
Jono: From talking to city councillors and the Deputy Mayor what I’ve heard is that yes, Wellington is a student city, but it’s also many other things as well. We’re the capital city, we’re a cultural capital as well, a creative capital, we’re many other things aside from a student city. So to enhance the student experience, yes we can work with other students’ associations here in Wellington, but I think we have a great opportunity to work with students’ associations around the country as well. We’re the third biggest association, we’ve got a really great relationships with OUSA and with AUSA, and to some extent UCSA. I think it’s about extending those relationships and get in, potentially, international acts to O-Week for example, having a bit of a more coordinated O-Week so we can provide a better deal for students around the country. So I think the vision is bigger than that.
Liam, you mentioned that UCSA is much more visible around campus than VUWSA is. What are some examples of that?
Liam: So for example they run quirky things during lectures such as “careless whisper”, where a particular student who’s nominated by other students wins a prize for that week. They’re located in Canterbury’s equivalent of the Hub, so they run sausage sizzles, they help support clubs all the time, and there’s events that connect students with each other throughout the trimester, which VUWSA could do as well.
One of the common concerns that’s often raised about associations like UCSA and OUSA is that they’re able to provide all these services and be so visible because they’re so well funded by the university. And yet they don’t seem to have much of a political voice when it comes to criticising the university on matters of academic quality or the student experience. And that seems to be something that VUWSA values quite highly, its political voice. Do you think that there is a tradeoff there? Did you ever observe UCSA taking the university to task?
Liam: In terms of UCSA and Canterbury’s relationship, from the outside it seemed that there was a constructive relationship. Reading, for example, the President’s column in Salient as opposed to the one in Canta, there seems to be a lot more confrontations over academic quality and where the student levy’s being spent, and so forth. Whether that actually achieves anything is up for debate. I think you may be right that there’s a tradeoff in terms of what is being said, but being realistic and actually making a difference to the student experience, a more constructive approach might be just as effective and also get increased funding.
So what you’re saying is that that political role is largely for show?
Liam: Yeah, in some ways.
Jono: Can I respond to that?
Jono: I’m really proud that we have a students’ association that is willing to be independent and fight for students on issues like academic quality, like democracy on University Council. I think if VUWSA was just a service provider we wouldn’t need elections, we wouldn’t need an Executive. We have an Executive to fight for students. Anyone can provide a service. So yes, there’s still a lot of work to do on service provision. That’s what students see—they see the free food, they see the food bank, they see the advocacy service. But on top of that there’s so much to what VUWSA is. There’s that representation side too.
Unfortunately when it comes to other students’ associations, they value that funding agreement with the university so much that they sacrifice that independence. We’ve been able to fight for things like democracy on Council, we’ve been able to fight for preserving that two-week mid-trimester break in trimester 2. If we were just a service provider, we wouldn’t be able to do that, and that’s not a better deal for students.
What can VUWSA do to improve its financial position?
Jono: Since voluntary student membership revenue has been an increasing issue here. Obviously at the moment we’re almost at the whim of the University where we have to negotiate constantly for our services, for our wellbeing, for our other support that we get for our staff. So my vision as well is to improve that. I have a really good relationship with the General Manager and the other staff at our students’ association and I’m keen to work with them to create an operational plan to diversify our revenue streams. In terms of where that comes from there are a few options—grants and that sort of thing. But I think we also need to choose our own values. There’s some organisations that might want to fund VUWSA that we might not want a relationship with.
So you won’t be opening a strip club to get more revenue then?
Liam: Funding is an essential issue. Compared to OUSA and UCSA, VUWSA’s not funded to nearly half the extent. But I think that’s where the critical mass of other students’ associations comes in. With events, with more students attending events like O-Week, we can afford to increase the scale and therefore the quality of events. Large companies—for instance, Russel McVeigh with law students’ societies—often sponsor student events around the country, so it doesn’t seem that big a step to find a sponsorship contract with a commercial organisation that would help to sustain VUWSA’s core services.
How would you get students more involved in student politics?
Liam: Using the spaces that are more visible to students like the Hub, to a lesser extent the Hunter Lounge, use those areas to convene discussions, to have debates around areas that are important to students. Increasing VUWSA’s online presence to engage students, particularly on social media.
Jono: It is more basic than that as well. You don’t see the representation side, you don’t see VUWSA fighting for students behind closed doors at Academic Board meetings, for example. So I think it’s about publicising that. A great example is the campaign to restore democracy on University Council. I was really proud to be part of the student body when there were students coming to us saying “we really believe in this, we support you guys in pushing for this”. I think it’s winning hearts and minds in that sense that helps gets students more involved in student politics.
What is the value of experience in student politics?
Liam: Experience can be overrated sometimes, when weighed up against the benefit of having a fresh look in. Having said that I have experience of other universities, of what student life can be like. But any person can learn the job within several weeks, and it does not take long, if you work hard, to build relationships. When put next to a new perspective, experience comes second.
Jono: I’d like to emphasise that I’m not campaigning based on my experience, I’m campaigning on what my vision is for students. I’m very new to student politics as well, I’ve only been involved in VUWSA this year, that’s the extent of my student politics experience. But the value I bring is that I’m a normal student as well, I’m a student who’s been at Vic for four years now, I came to Wellington and to Victoria because I love this city, I love this university. I’ve been involved in a range of parts of the student experience including being a club president. As a law student I’ve been based down at Pipitea campus, I’ve seen what it’s like to be a student down there as well. I’m not running on experience but on the fact that I am a student myself.
Do either of you have any political affiliations?
Who did you vote for in the last election?
[After some laughter and protestations]
Liam: I voted for the Labour candidate and the Green Party.
Jono: I voted two ticks Labour. Though I think when it comes to student interests and student policies we can transcend politics in a students’ association.
So it’s just been a coincidence that all VUWSA Presidents have been Labour or Green supporters?
Jono: Potentially! I think it’s also just the type of person you get. Though having said that I’ve noticed there are a few centre-right candidates running for election this year so that’s really exciting.
Oh, who? We need to hound them out of town! What way are you intending to vote in the NZUSA referendum?
Jono: I wouldn’t want to say. Student politicians have bickered about this for too long. The reason we’ve brought this to a referendum is that students have the right to decide this issue. I will honour that referendum whichever way it goes, though my bottom line is that we need a national student voice to campaign for tertiary education issues. The question students are being asked is whether NZUSA is the best organisation for that, or is there a credible alternative?
Do you believe there is a credible alternative?
Jono: At this stage I haven’t heard any credible alternative, I’m very open to hearing what any alternative might be. But at the end of the day we do need someone to campaign on national student issues.
Liam: Students really have the right to decide for themselves whether we are a part of it or not. It’s not for me to say either way.
You’re a student though.
Liam: I’m a student. As a student representative I will implement whatever the vote comes out as. But I believe there is a definite need for a student voice.
How much do you intend to spend on holographic stickers?
Jono: We’ll see. I don’t know.
Liam, do you have a holographic sticker budget in mind?
Liam: Not off the top of my head, unfortunately!
Would you rather have legs for fingers or fingers for legs?
Liam [after long pause]: I would go for fingers for legs, just because I like playing the piano and other musical instruments, and you can use your hands for a lot more things than you can your legs.
Jono: I would go the same. I like my fingers!