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October 9, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Rory drinks earl grey tea with milk: A conversation with the president about life, VSM, and VUWSA

It is very sunny and we hold the interview on the wooden tables outside Milk and Honey. There’s a light wind and the occasional tui — Rory wonders if they might be kererū; “not heavy enough” — floats down into the trees on the courtyard. He gets an earl grey tea and drinks it with milk. Tim has a lemonade. Laura gets fries, and an orange and mint drink. Refreshing. We joke about the noises that the chips will make on the microphone — which, at the time, we are unaware is set to the wrong channel and won’t record the fucking interview. It’s very hot. The rightside of my face is warm now, in the evening, all of this is receding into memory. Rewriting is not going to work — everything is but long shadows of an afternoon.

*

Rory Lenihan-Ikin was born in Morningside, Auckland, but failed to live up to “Morningside for Life,” moving to Grey Lynn. His dad ran his own arboriculture business, while his mum, a trained nurse, gave up her career to focus on the home life. She was involved in his school, and worked tirelessly on the various committees and community groups that directly influenced the lives of him and his sister. Rory talked about how appreciative he was of what his mum did, but more broadly of having parents who valued tertiary education. “I don’t understand those parents of the Baby Boomer generation who benefited from free tertiary education and don’t support free tertiary education. But more than that, those who benefited and then don’t also help their children through study despite having the means to do so.”

Having his parents support meant he was able to move to Wellington to study. In 2012 he started a degree in politics and sociology, with some additional Te Reo papers and a minor in marketing — which was “interesting.” In his first and second years, like many students, Rory was completely disconnected from student politics; he had no idea what VUWSA was and what they did (apart from throwing O-Week events). It was in 2014 that he got involved. VUWSA founded and facilitated an organic food co-op that Rory was a part of, and his friend, Stephanie Gregor, who was the Wellbeing and Sustainability Officer at the time, suggested he run for the position. He was successful, and then ran for office again, becoming the Welfare Vice-President in 2016. After a third successful campaign, Rory became the 2017 VUWSA President that we’ve come to know and love (some more than others).

Informing his presidency has been a feeling that confronted him upon moving to Wellington in 2012. It was a culture shock; central Wellington, particularly the community of Te Puni — a mud-orange tower on the hill for the children of the elite, and those talented enough to receive scholarships — was starkly different to Grey Lynn. He describes being made forcefully aware of his privilege and feeling hamstrung by it. Yet, “with great privilege, comes great responsibility” and the need to confront it, to do something with it, not just to move past and forget.

A big part of doing something was acknowledging that it was the support from his parents that enabled him to be involved in VUWSA. His role as Welfare Officer granted him only $2000 total remuneration, received over the year, for ten contracted hours per week, as mandated by the Executive Membership Statute (he worked well over his required hours, as is common in VUWSA, year after year). As president, a priority for Rory was to ensure that the officers are paid for the ten hours worked, and this year VUWSA passed a motion that means they’re now paid minimum wage — a move to make running for VUWSA accessible for everyone.

*

While VUWSA may be (theoretically) accessible for everyone (there are still the barriers of technocracy and an election cycle determined by who has the slickest campaign video), it’s no longer representative of students in the same way it was in the past. In 2011, ACT Party MP Heather Roy’s Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill passed its third reading, legislating that “no student or prospective student at a [tertiary] institution is required to be a member of a students’ association.” This was the move toward voluntary student membership (VSM), where students “opt-in” to join their union. Prior to the passing of the Bill, all students were automatically a member of their union, with the ability to “opt-out” available if they wished — a model that provided a stable revenue stream as all VUW students’ would pay a membership fee that went directly to VUWSA. It was an automatic contribution deducted at the start of the year, alongside a number of other levies that went to the university — these were subsequently amalgamated into the Student Services Levy (SSL).

Rory describes the introduction of VSM as a “seismic shift” (though admits he’s a little hazy on all the details, as he was blissfully ignorant of VUWSA back in 2012). VSM  changed the funding model; VUWSA now negotiates with the university to receive a proportion of the SSL to provide services to students. All students pay the SSL each year to facilitate key support services, including health and counselling, recreation, careers information, clubs and societies, child care, financial support, advocacy, and media.

There was a very narrow window of opportunity after the implementation of VSM for associations to negotiate what services they’d be providing and what the university would provide. Rory uses the metaphor of services being thrown into the air by the different universities and the associations scrambling around to catch them. The things that VUWSA caught — advocacy, lost property, representation through things like the class representatives system, community pantry, parking, etc. — remain the basis of its income through the SSL today. Supplementary income is provided by VUWSA Trust, which manages assets (the main one being Vic Books, the only business that VUWSA runs) and investments.

One silver lining of VSM, in Rory’s view, is that it forced student associations to professionalise; there’s a greater degree of accountability about how money is being spent. But these are only glints of silver in a sky of dark clouds; the independence and dexterity of associations has been greatly reduced.

The VSM funding model means that, if VUWSA sees a need to provide additional services to students, they have to pitch how the new initiative will benefit the university, rather than simply deciding as an organisation what they think students need. With this comes a considerable time delay, limiting the organisation’s ability to be responsive. For example, Rory points out the lack of a queer-specific support role as part of the VUWSA staff, and how students have brought concerns to them for a while about this, but the organisation is financially constrained with regards to introducing such a role: “If VUWSA had a $4 million budget we could have made this a role straight away.”

There’s a touch of annoyance from Rory when it comes to the pre-VSM executives: “They should have seen the writing on the wall and been more prepared.” In 1999, legislation was passed allowing VSM to be implemented at any university campus by a referendum of students; the same year students at Auckland University voted in VSM. Rory points out that VUWSA executives should have seen universal VSM coming and saved assets, to try establish financial independence from the university. The long-term vision for VUWSA, one that will take a while to implement, is to have the organisation funded predominantly through the Trust (through assets like Vic Books), with the SSL as a supplement, not the main source of income, to run services. This will allow more independence from the university and freedom to manoeuvre.

*

Here we are — while the legacy of VSM lingers in the background of VUWSA’s operations, they have still actively campaigned on student issues. Rory has been fronting the push Fairer Fares this year, which launched back in 2013. In a win for students, the Greater Wellington Regional Council has included, in its Regional Public Transport Plan, a 25% discount on public transport for full time tertiary students. Obviously the struggle is not over, but Rory points out that it proves “long term advocacy can bring long term benefits.” It also provides a symbolic and crucial victory for the association — VUWSA has demonstrated its relevance.

Another big campaign this year was We Have Power, which had the optimistic goal of getting 100% of students to vote in this year’s general election. According to Rory, the idea was born at the NZUSA conference in January. The VUWSA caucus pushed hard for it, stressing the need for NZUSA to run a nationwide campaign, something it hasn’t done in years, but is crucial for demonstrating the organisation’s relevance and capability. Given that the special votes aren’t yet in, Rory only gave brief reflections. He said it was a success that NZUSA managed to pull off a national campaign working with associations across the country, but that the provisional results also demonstrated again that the political system is not working for young people. The real challenge for campaigns like We Have Power in future is to reach out to youth who are disenfranchised — those not in education or work. He pointed out that the perfect organisational structures are in place, with centralised hubs across the country — campuses; sites of possibility — and it’s up to organisations like VUWSA with NZUSA to lead the charge.

*

Rory’s term is drawing to a close, and with it what feels like the end of an era. While VUWSA has been in a relatively stable place this year, Rory is one of the last of a line of presidents aware of the turmoil of VSM’s recent history — having joined in 2014 and working alongside members who were there in the early days. Next year VUWSA will be run by a complete outsider to the organisation, or a young and relative newbie.

His advice for the next president? “Listen first, talk later.” This seems crucial for effective representation, especially as VUWSA “should be the glue that pulls the student body, actually the university, together.” He also pointed out the need for the candidates to be themselves. There’s always risk of emulating previous presidents, but keeping up the act isn’t sustainable: “you have to bring your own personality and way of doing things to the role.”

When we began we weren’t sure how to hold this interview with Rory — he’s a representative and a politician, but also a person, who comes to his role from a unique place. It felt lacking just to interview him about being a president, but the timing felt right. He’s stepping aside; the motivations to influence aren’t as pressing. The pressure of legacy, maybe, but as Rory said to us when we asked what he thought his legacy was, “that’s not for me to say, that’s for other people to decide.”

His favourite colour is the green of a kauri — of course it damn is.

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