Salient feature writer Matthew Cunningham gets into the nitty gritty of the voluntary student membership issue, and what Roger Douglas’ bill might mean for students.
VSM and CSM are the most infamous acronyms in student life today. They’re on just about everyone’s lips—students’ associations, politicians, club representatives. So what do they mean? Before I delve in to that, take a look at your Fees Assessment. Cast your eyes about halfway down the page, below the daunting list of papers you’ve yet to sit. See the fee for $139.20? That is the levy you paid to join VUWSA (Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association) when you enrolled in your degree. So whether you’re a CSM lover, a VSM enthusiast, or a staunch supporter of ‘meh’, you have a stake in the debate. This article will spell out in detail what that debate is, and what it means to you as a student.
What’s in an Acronym?
The current legislation on student unionism states that, upon enrolling at a tertiary institute, students will automatically become members of that institution’s students’ association. By law, there can be only one students’ association on each campus, and by law you are required to join it. This is what is referred to as ‘Compulsory Student Membership’, or CSM.
The legislation also states that those who conscientiously object to being a member of a students’ association may choose to ‘opt-out’; in such circumstances, the student’s membership levy is then donated to a charity of their choice. Additionally, an association may exempt a member from having to pay their levy on the grounds of financial hardship.
This was the status quo until the 1990s, when the option of ‘Voluntary Student Membership’ (VSM) was first seriously discussed. Three separate members’ bills were raised in parliament over the course of the decade. The first unsuccessful bill, introduced by Michael Laws in 1994, sought to make membership of students’ associations voluntary. The second and third were introduced in 1997 by Donna Awatere-Huata and Tony Steel respectively. A watered-down version of Steel’s bill was passed that allowed for ten per cent of students to initiate a referendum on whether or not their association would become voluntary. Since that time, several associations have held referenda, some of which became voluntary. The Waikato and Unitec Student Unions both went voluntary for a brief time before passing referenda to return to a compulsory model. Only Auckland University Students’ Association (AUSA) has consistently retained VSM, despite several referenda attempting to revert to CSM.
VSM rose to prominence again in 2007. It was spurred by the controversial acts of some VUWSA exec members and the possibility that a National-led Coalition government might come to power in 2008. The matter came to a head in August 2009, when a private members’ bill introduced by Sir Roger Douglas—titled the ‘Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill’—was drawn from the ballot.
The Education Freedom From A What Now?
Roger’s bill is fairly simple. It seeks to abolish compulsory membership in students’ associations and allow students the right to choose whether or not they join. It states the following:
No person, including any tertiary institution or any association of students, may require any student or exert undue influence on any student—
(a) to become or not become a member of any association of students; or
(b) to pay any money to any association of students, or to any other person in lieu of such fees.
The bill also stipulates that “no person, including any tertiary institution, may act in any way that conflicts with the spirit and intent of this section”.
The bill passed its first reading in the House on 23 September 2009 and was passed to the Education and Science Select Committee. Public submissions on this bill are now being accepted and will be open until 31 March 2010.
A Veritable Smorgasbord of Political Opinions
Roger Douglas, the granddaddy of the New Zealand neo-liberal movement, is pleased as punch that his bill has been drawn. “Individuals should be free to associate with whatever group they choose” instead of being “forced to associate with a group that they do not wish to support”.
He added that his bill might also “make student unions more accountable”, but that this is “not the main reason why I support VSM”.
His enthusiasm is not matched by the Labour Party. “[Student unionism] has proven to be a very good way for ensuring that certain services and advocacy are made available to students in universities,” says Labour Tertiary Education Spokesperson Maryan Street.
“Without it, it is not at all certain that the universities or other institutions would be either willing or able to provide those services.”
Catherine Delahunty, Green Party MP and tertiary education spokesperson, agrees with Street’s sentiment. “Universities don’t look after students. Students look after students. [Under a voluntary model] there isn’t the right kind of money, and it reduces student services to small, voluntary attempts and to contracting, and its doesn’t provide the same level of opportunity for all students.”
Delahunty admits that freedom of association “sounds terribly appealing”, but contends that “when you go to university, many new students don’t realise what the unions provide”.
Steven Joyce, the new National Minister for Tertiary Education, was coy on the issue. “The government is waiting for the select committee report-back before firming up its position and deciding whether or not to support the Freedom of Association Bill,” stated a spokesperson for the minister.
They added that “support for the Bill is not part of National’s confidence and supply agreement with ACT”, although they were “happy to support it to select committee”.
The infamous former Tertiary Education Minister Anne Tolley was more forthcoming during the first reading of the bill in the House. “The current law does not allow students to make their own decisions about union membership.
“[Students] are the only group in society that is denied that basic freedom. Most organisations have to demonstrate their value and their competence in order to justify support. What is so different about student unions?”
Won’t Someone Please Think of the Students?!
So what are students saying about all of this? “We support the current status quo because students can already choose how they want to organise themselves,” says David Do, Co-President of the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations (NZUSA).
“Students’ associations in a voluntary environment will probably not be able to sustain many—or any—of the services that they currently offer. That’s going to hurt the quality of education that students receive and the quality of experience that they have at tertiary institutions.”
When asked what actions NZUSA was taking in support of retaining CSM, Do replied that they were “working with students’ associations” to “inform students as much as possible about what this bill means for them”.
“We’ve been talking with members of parliament, and talking to other organisations in the tertiary sector, and trying to get their support on board for the campaign.”
VUWSA President Max Hardy stressed the universal nature of student representation. “The reason why every student should be a member of VUWSA is that every student receives benefits from VUWSA’s services.”
He added that VUWSA provides those services “far cheaper than the university would be able to”, and that he didn’t think that “students want to end up in a position where they are paying more money and receiving less services”.
Hardy stressed that VUWSA’s prime responsibility was to educate its members about VSM and the “importance of supporting universal membership”.
“We’re not here to impose our ideas on anybody… we do want to promote and facilitate discussion on this issue, and we think that if we do, people will come down on our side.”
Victoria University also supports the status quo. Vice-Chancellor Pat Walsh maintains that “despite the problems that student unions have, overall, they contribute much to university communities and most importantly to the student experience.
“Student unions provide support services, advocacy and activities for students.
“To ensure no conflicts of interest, it is essential that many of these services are provided by a student body rather than the university, such as advocacy support for students with academic grievances.”
ACT On Campus Vice-President Peter McCaffrey disagrees that membership should be compulsory. “The primary reason [for VSM] is the principled one where we believe that people should have freedom of association.
“Freedom of association is guaranteed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights and in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and it basically means that you get to choose what organisations you belong to, who you associate with—and equally, what organisations you don’t belong to.”
Student Choice spokesperson Lauren Brazier agrees with McCaffrey. “Compulsory student membership has been a terrible failure in that it has resulted in misrepresentation, waste and fraud.
“Voluntary membership means that students’ associations will actually have to persuade people to join and meet their needs if they are to survive. Compulsory membership causes problems because it allows compulsory associations to exist regardless of whether or not they actually meet the needs and serve the interests of their members. They have a guaranteed income regardless of how they perform.”
Brazier points out how the rest of society functions on a voluntary model. “There’s no real equivalent to that [CSM] in New Zealand society—motorists don’t have to join the automobile association, pet owners don’t have to join the SPCA.”
Crystal Ball Gazing
So what might happen if VSM were introduced in New Zealand? David Do feels that it would be singularly disastrous for students’ associations. “It will devastate important student services [like] welfare, advocacy, support for clubs and societies… under voluntary membership, these services will be lost because associations will no longer have the revenue to provide them.
“Also Faculty representation that VUWSA helps facilitate, that’s something that’s going to be lost because associations will not be able to sustain those structures.
“So for the student on the ground, their experience will be severely diminished because a lot of what VUWSA does will disappear.”
Hardy says VSM would diminish the quality of the tertiary experience. “You would see a reduction in campus life and a reduction in the community around campuses across New Zealand.
“I think ultimately you’ll see a reduction in the quality of education that you receive at university, because you won’t have the coordinated student scrutiny of the university’s budgets, of the university’s professional and academic learning environment.”
Hardy argues that VSM would end up costing students more. “You would also see students being levied by their university to provide some of the services that VUWSA currently provides, and the university will probably have to levy students more than VUWSA levies them, and they won’t be able to provide the same number of services.”
McCaffrey counters that VSM would be good for students’ associations. “They’d have to be much more efficient, they’d have to provide services that students wanted and needed, and they’d have to be more accountable.
“Students’ associations should have confidence that they do actually provide services that students want, and if they do provide those services and provide them to a decent quality, then people will want to become a member.”
McCaffrey disagrees that university-levied services would be more expensive. “That assumes that, when you make it voluntary, the students’ association just disappears, and that nobody volunteers to help them anymore. It assumes that all those volunteers just go away and stop helping, and that you’re not getting any sort of help from them at all and you need staff to cover all of that.
“You can look at the previous year’s budget for VUWSA, and basically 60 to 70 per cent of the costs of the association are administration costs… 70 per cent of the association’s money goes on keeping the association itself running rather than actually providing the services to the students.”
Lauren Brazier feels that VSM would be hugely beneficial. “In the absence of compulsory membership these voluntary organisations will have to attract members on the basis of the benefits they offer… this will mean that the organisation will be more responsible to the needs of potential and existing members.
“Further, voluntary organisations will be able to actually legitimately speak on behalf of their members, because individuals will have given their permission through agreeing to join.”
Elliot Blade and Alex Nelder, the President and Education Vice-President of the Auckland University Students’ Association (AUSA) respectively, say that voluntary membership has not provided their members with these benefits. “We’re struggling to provide services across the board and we’re given quite a small budget by the university with which to provide services.
“In terms of advocacy services, we have people that work really hard and do great things with the resources we give them, but they’re overworked and they’re very under-resourced.”
Blade disagrees that a voluntary system will force students’ associations to tailor their services better to student needs. “We provide the same services as before, we just provide a hell of a lot less of them.
“You don’t have to be voluntary or compulsory to know what students want—students tell you what they want.”
Nelder also stressed that AUSA had only managed to survive as a voluntary association through a unique set of circumstances. “Over the eighty years that we were a compulsory organisation we had built up a number of assets—for example, we had a stake in the university bookshop, and businesses around Auckland—so we were able to turn a profit in those businesses.
“A lot of the polytech and university unions that haven’t built up assets would collapse.”
But What About the Auzzies?
A bill similar to Douglas’ was passed in Australia in 2005. A paper released in 2008 by the Labor Minister for Youth Kate Ellis concluded that “the abolition of upfront compulsory student union fees had impacted negatively on the provision of amenities and services to university students, with the greatest impact at smaller and regional universities and campuses.
“Many noted that the introduction of VSU (Voluntary Student Unionism) had forced rationalisations, and that current levels of services were more limited than had previously been the case.”
Most submissions also stated that “the capacity for student advocacy and democratic student representation had been significantly reduced since VSU”.
The report added, however, that “some institutions did report some benefits”, including “the streamlining and more efficient delivery of services to suit student needs, the opening up of the provision of services to a commercial model, and consultation with students to determine what could be defined as essential services”.
The National Union of Students (NUS)—Australia’s equivalent of NZUSA—claims that VSU has meant “less services, support and representation for students on campus.
“Since the introduction of voluntary student unionism (VSU) in 2005, student organisations have had their budgets slashed.”
Australian Liberal Students’ Federation (ALSF) President Alexander Butterworth disagrees. “The introduction of voluntary student unionism has been good for good student unions and bad for bad student unions.
“By allowing students the choice not to join, unions have been forced to make membership worthwhile. Student unions were previously mere political front groups for left-wing political parties, but they have now cut their spending on obscure left-wing political causes and adapted to providing valuable services to students.”
Butterworth points out several examples, including the University of Western Australia Student Union, where membership rates are around sixty per cent.
He also asserts that the figures on reduced services are misleading. The University of Melbourne Student Union, for example, reduced its clubs and societies budget by $18,000 in order to increase its donation to the NUS by $15,000.
McCaffrey highlighted the differences between the Australian and New Zealand bills. “The bill that was passed in Australia was quite different to the one that was proposed here.
“What was proposed in Australia prevents universities from collecting any fees for non-academic services to pass on—whereas in New Zealand, even under the current legislation, you look at Auckland where the university collects fees for services and then contracts to the students’ association to provide those services.
“We’re not proposing to ban those sorts of things like they did in Australia.”
It’s Up To You
Both the CSM and the VSM advocates present many arguments in favour of their case. Compulsory advocates stress the value of the services that they provide and assert that these services would be dramatically reduced by VSM. They point out that many functions of students’ associations, such as advocacy and representation, provide benefits to all students. They also claim that alternate funding models, such as university levies, would increase the cost for students and reduce transparency.
VSM advocates, on the other hand, emphasise the right of freedom of association. Regardless of whether or not an opt-out is provided, they assert that students should not be forced to join any organisation that they do not wish to. They also assert that a voluntary association will be more responsive to student needs and provide higher quality services. Finally, they point out that students’ associations are the only organisations in society where members are forced to join.
With the guaranteed support of ACT in the House, the balance of power on Roger’s bill lies with the National Party. Ultimately, the recommendations of the Select Committee will determine whether or not membership in students’ associations become voluntary. Therefore, regardless of which side of the fence you fall on, your argument will be best championed through educated submissions to the Select Committee. This article, along with the extra features on the Salient website, provide you with the tools to educate yourself on the debate.
If this article has shown anything, it is that neither side of the debate should be dismissed out of hand. The arguments over student membership have relied for too long upon caricatures and stereotypes of each other. If any real progress is to be made in improving the lot of students, a more educated and civil debate is required.
And make no mistake—you should give a damn about this. Apart from the fact that every single one of us has a financial stake in the debate (courtesy of our VUWSA levy), the question of student representation goes to the core of what the university experience is all about. Remember, students are the key stakeholders in this debate, not politicians. You can—and more importantly, you SHOULD—have your say.
For more information on the VSM debate, see here for links to full transcripts of the interviews conducted by Matthew, reports and other useful resources. Exclusive to the Salient website.