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March 23, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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The VUWSA Change Proposal

Hope. Change. Obama? Nope. It’s VUWSA

Salient feature writer Sarah Robson investigates the origins and direction of the VUWSA change proposal—looking at what other students’ associations are doing and what has been done so far, she’ll change the way you think about VUWSA.

Change. It’s the buzz-word of the moment. John Key’s talking about it. So is Barack Obama. And, believe it or not, so is VUWSA.

Is the much-ridiculed Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association on the brink of reforming its ways? Perhaps. Change is in the air. I can almost smell it. Go on, sniff a little harder. Sniff. Dooooo it.

Drum roll please. Salient presents, for consumption at your own will and leisure, a dummy’s guide to the VUWSA Change Proposal. Or something.

These Children That You Spit On

The Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association—or VUWSA for short—is, according to its website, the “official representative body for students studying at Victoria University.” VUWSA membership at Vic is compulsory, so when you enrol, you automatically become a member [for more on this see page 31]. VUWSA operates on the principle that “the best people to represent the interests of students are students themselves”—VUWSA is run by students, for students.

Enhancing the social and cultural life of students, and acting as a political advocate for the student community have been the primary tasks of the Students’ Association since its birth in 1899. It’s VUWSA’s job to support clubs and activities on campus, and represent students at various levels of university decision-making.

VUWSA President Jasmine Freemantle asserted that VUWSA “fills a number of diverse roles,” but its overall task is “to serve students.”

“VUWSA has eight constitutional goals, which form the core areas of its work,” Freemantle explained. “In a general sense… these goals encompass the areas of service provision and delivery, activities, and representation.”

However, in recent years much attention has been diverted from the good that VUWSA does and the services it provides for students. Personality conflicts, spending scandals, budget blowouts and misbehaviour at exec meetings have dominated the pages of Salient and fuelled the VUWSA gossip mill. Incompetence is a word that springs to the minds of many. VUWSA has—at various times during its existence—been an association associated with political activism, good haircuts, mass student protests, suits and ties, political conservatism, bad facial hair, no facial hair, bad smells and social rebellion. VUWSA played an active role in the student community. It was a visible presence. It did stuff. People knew what VUWSA was. So what happened?

Perhaps it was the rise of the internet. Salient. Alternative media. Blogs? Isn’t that what the cool kids blame these days? The apparent decline of VUWSA, depending on who you talk to, can be attributed to a number of factors. It only takes a quick flick through a few issues of Salient over the last few years to gain some understanding as to why VUWSA has become, in the eyes of some, an association of ill-repute.

Since I enrolled at this fine educational establishment in 2006, and started reading the fine student media publication you hold in your hot little hands, I’ve come to notice that VUWSA hasn’t often been portrayed in its pages in a positive light. Here is a small sample of stories, for your digestion, that have appeared in the pages of Salient since 2006. Ok, so I admittedly picked some of the worst ones:

• Opiegate, 2007. An exec member called lots of psychic hotlines. Student funds were involved.

• Geoff Hayward’s pimping of the VUWSA van in late 2007. It cost students $22,222.22.

• Joel Cosgrove’s almost-all-expenses-paid trip to Australia last year. He still has to pay some-thing back.

Scandalous? Well, it ain’t NW worthy, but in the realm of student politics, this is scandal. Scandalous scandal. The exec has previously blamed the Editor/News Editor/author-of-Eye-on-Exec for the bad vibes, but Salient has had a point. [for more on this see Nina’s article on page 34] The bigger issue at stake here is the level of accountability that the exec has to the student body—the people the exec has been elected to represent. Accountability in the past has been minimal. If they were lucky, they’d get a smack on the hand from Salient, a telling off in the exec meeting and perhaps be made to pay some money back. Then life would carry on… without a plan, and exceeding the retrospective budget.

In addition to the above errors of judgement made by past exec members, the exec has faced several other personal dilemmas. In recent years, VUWSA has been embroiled in a tense, but improving, relationship with The Union. Ongoing, complex issues between the exec and VUWSA staff also exist.

A Million Dead End Streets

Back to that “change is in the air” gobbledy-gook Obama-esque metaphor thing. There have been obvious financial and management issues at VUWSA for a long time, and reform of the organisation’s structure has been desperately needed. There is little evidence of long term strategic or financial planning, and the exec has been unable to cope with a lot of VUWSA’s management and employment issues.

Freemantle described past exec’s planning attempts as “abysmal”.

“It’s really difficult to set up structures from scratch,” she said.

“I’ve spent my Chirstmas and New Year period writing and drafting up a plan for the year. That is something that most incoming presidents wouldn’t bother doing, or even perhaps think of doing.”

VUWSA’s 2009 plan was passed by the exec in January, the earliest that Freemantle believes any sort of plan was passed. “The last time that there was any intent to formulate any of sort planning procedures was in 2006, and that plan was passed in August that year, along with their budget.”

In September 2008, VUWSA released a consultation document for a “Revised structure of VUWSA business.” The document outlined a proposal to “improve VUWSA’s efficiency and effectiveness,” including significant cost-cutting measures and the reform of VUWSA’s staffing structure. The purpose of the proposed reforms was to “ensure that VUWSA meets all its objectives as outlined in the VUWSA constitution.”

The document identified several issues that have led to the financial problems faced by VUWSA. Significant emphasis is placed on the increasingly unsustainable cost of Orientation. Given that student numbers at Orientation are falling, the document stated that VUWSA can no longer justify the huge cost of staging the events. A financial review in 2006 by Howarth Strategy made several recommendations to VUWSA regarding its financial position. The most significant was that “VUWSA [should] concentrate on its core union business and scale back its fiscal outlay in respect of social, sporting and cultural events.”

As a consequence of this recommended scale-back, the consultation document proposed a reform of VUWSA’s staffing structure. The consultation document states that “due to VUWSA’s executive structure, and high turnover of executive positions, VUWSA does not have the internal structures and mechanisms to successfully manage staff.”

Immune to Your Consultations

A Change Proposal Committee to hear submissions and make recommendations to the exec was established following the release of the consultation document. The Report of the VUWSA Change Committee was received by the VUWSA Executive in early January this year, and was released to VUWSA staff and other submitters for consultation. The final report of the Change Proposal Committee was released in late February, although it was not accepted in full by the exec.

The Change Proposal Committee did not endorse all the proposals made in the original consultation document. Emphasis in the Committee’s report is placed on planning and budgeting reform, implementing a new management structure, and ensuring that VUWSA exec members and VUWSA staff are accountable for their actions and expenditure. A proposal to disestablish three full-time staff positions was not endorsed by the committee.

Several submissions to the committee called for VUWSA to have a “more professional approach to planning and budgeting at all levels.” Some cited the “lack of effective management within VUWSA” and the “annual turn around of exec-utive members and their relative inexperience in the role” as reasons for VUWSA’s minimal financial planning, accountability and reporting. Furthermore, the lack of enforced budgeting and explicit planning has resulted in “insufficient accountability and cost control” for VUWSA.


The Committee recommended that a yearly planning and budgeting cycle be developed and implemented by the executive, including a five year strategic plan (to be reviewed annually) and a regular operational business plan. The Committee recommended that the operational business plan identify “concrete activites, actions and resources required and budgets based on the strategic plan.” Progress would be reviewed against the plan regularly.

One of the most important changes to VUWSA’s structure recommended by the Committee is the establishment of the position of Association Manager. The Association Manager would be responsible for “VUWSA staff employment matters, including hiring and performance management,” states the report. The Association Manager would provide “expertise, advice and assistance to the executive throughout the planning and budgeting cycle.” The Association Manager would also work with VUWSA staff in developing and implementing plans and ensuring accountability. Employment and staffing matters would be taken out of the hands of the exec, who often do not have the expertise to deal with these issues.

Freemantle believes that the lack of operational and strategic plans in the past is a reason why VUWSA requires an Association Manager. “To be honest, I don’t think you can expect some random 21-year old who’s been an elected official to come in here and know how to do business plans and strategic plans and operational plans… That’s not actually realistic.” “I’m not a professional at those things, but I probably have more skills in those sorts of areas than most presidents have.”

Freemantle, in the first instance, held concerns about establishing the position of Association Manager. “[It] was something that initially, in principle, that I was a little bit opposed to, because of what I’ve seen happen at other students’ associations when they have had managers,” she said.

“I am being very careful surrounding the implementation of a manager… I don’t want VUWSA to get to a point where there’s no point in even having an executive any more, because it’s all done by a team of managers. It’s something I’m trying to guard against because there is a pattern of it happening elsewhere.”

The Change Proposal Committee recommended the strengthening of the governance structure of the VUWSA Executive. This would involve establishing two new committees: a Performance Management Committee, to set the Association Manager Employment Agreement and monitor his/her performance; and an Audit and Finance Committee, to oversee budgeting, expenditure and financial management. Further ad hoc and standing committees would be created as required to oversee specific campaigns or activities. Freemantle firmly believes that the exec should also undergo governance training to ensure they are up-to-speed from day one.

“There is very little follow through on things. People come in, take three months to get up to speed with basic things—so, how to use a photocopier—then they’ve got six months and there’s another election,” Freemantle explained. “And particularly if people aren’t following on for the next year, a lot of people are just like pffft.”

The Change Proposal Committee also called for the greater accountability of members of the executive. The performance of members of the exec has been uneven. The report states that “while many executive members are committed and hard working and competent members, some do little to earn their honorarium.” This, the report adds, “tends to diminish the standing that the executive is held in by the VUWSA staff and the wider student body.” The report recommends that, to strengthen executive accountability, members undertake governance training as part of their induction. Furthermore, it is recommended that exec members provide weekly reports on their activities, and that individual payment (bonuses included) is linked to progress the exec members “has made against their agreed goals and objectives.”

Submissions to the Change Proposal Committee did not support the original consultation document’s proposal to disestablish the positions of Advertising and Sponsorship Manager, Campus Activities Coordinator and Club Development Officer. The committee was concerned that reducing or contracting out this work would be “a significant move away from the principle of ‘student control’.” However, these two positions are set for review, and it is proposed by the committee that a VUWSA Activities and Clubs team—responsible for running orientation and other activities—be formed.

The specific structure of Orientation was not discussed by the Change Proposal Committee. However, consideration was given to the “processes that are used to decide on orientation content and the related budgetary considerations.” The committee recommended greater planning and budgeting, given that Orientation has in recent years regularly exceeded its budget. The monitoring of expenditure against the agreed budget is also recommended.

Strange Fascination, Fascinating Me

Not all students’ associations are made like VUWSA. Some students’ associations manage to avoid scandal and budget blow-outs. The success, or otherwise, of a students’ association is obviously in the hands of those who run it. However, having adequate financial and management structures in place goes a long way to ensuring those in charge are held accountable for their actions, and that the students’ association achieves what it sets out to do—represent the interests of students. How does the structure recommended by VUWSA’s Change Proposal Committee compare to what other students’ associations are doing around the place?

Membership of the Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA) is compulsory for all Otago University students, as is the case at Vic. However, OUSA, unlike VUWSA, has a number of procedures already in place to ensure the Association’s financial solvency. “We are currently following a three year strategic plan, started in 2007 and finishing this year,” explained OUSA’s Finance and Services Officer (FSO), Mike Bridges. “Additionally, at the start of each year we outline what goals we would like to achieve, both in our roles and as an association.”

Budget-setting begins in the second half of the year. The FSO is responsible for making the first draft of the budget, as well as “recommendations based on what he [or] she believes to be necessary.” Bridges explained that this draft is then taken to the executive for discussion which, he said, “can often be the longest part of the process.”

Changes are made based on the recommendations of the executive and once they all agree, the proposed budget can be put forward to students for approval at a Special General Meeting in the second semester. There is a requirement that OUSA’s proposed budget be circulated in Critic (Otago’s student magazine), “giving students a chance to read over the budget before voting on it,” Bridges added. OUSA has a General Manager who, Bridges said, “looks after the employment side of things at the association, leaving us executives to exercise our sweet governance ability.”

A similar position has been a long-time feature of the Auckland University Students’ Association (AUSA). Following a review of AUSA in the early 1990s, it was recommended that the General Manager position be established. Current AUSA Administrative Vice-President, Joe McCrory, explained that the General Manager is responsible for the “day-to-day business” of the association, leaving the executive to deal with the business of student governance. McCrory said that AUSA benefits from having a General Manager who has been involved with AUSA for a “four or five year period, rather than just one or two years,” as is with the high turnover of exec members. AUSA’s General Manager deals with human resources and employment issues, “so you won’t see the exec sacking people,” McCrory said. “You need someone who has been there longer to deal with staffing issues,” he added.

Like Otago, AUSA has a longer-term Strategic Plan which outlines the association’s goals and commitments over a five year period. Annual Plans are also developed and implemented by AUSA. Membership of AUSA is voluntary, and thus it is funded quite differently to VUWSA. Students don’t pay a cent to join AUSA. Some of AUSA’s funding comes from the University, which also pays AUSA to run a number of student support services. Income is also generated from AUSA’s business interests, such as the University Bookshop, and the student radio station, 95bfm.

McCrory said budgets are set annually and are drawn up by AUSA’s Treasuer, the General Manager and the internal accountant. The budget is sent to the executive for review and approval. The budget must be approved before there is any expenditure, and no retrospective funding is allowed. Spending by the executive must gain approval from both the Treasurer and the General Manager.

It is painfully clear that VUWSA is lagging behind other students’ associations in terms of implementing appropriate management and financial structures. However, the recommendations of the Change Proposal Committee do bring VUWSA’s structure more in line with what’s going on at the other two major students’ associations—Otago and Auckland. It’s better late than never, right?

Look Out, You Rock ‘N’ Rollers

What’s next for the VUWSA Change Proposal? The report outlines a number of positive financial and management changes for the association, however, not all the boxes have yet been ticked by the exec.

A subcommittee is currently considering the Change Proposal Committee’s final report. Freemantle was unhappy with the Association Manager job description, as set out in the final report. This has subsequently been rewritten and is currently before the subcomittee.

Freemantle also drafted a 90 day plan for the implementation of the change proposal. The subcommittee agreed to this plan, on the provisor that it be extended to 120 days. Freemantle said this was “just to ensure adequate time to follow through on everything in an appropriate way, rather than trying to rush it through in a 90 day period.”

VUWSA staff members spoken to by Salient see no point in wasting more time—not to mention money—in considering the report’s recommendations, again. They are concerned that delays in implementing the Change Proposal will create uncertainty regarding their employment. One staff member spoken to said it was time for VUWSA to move forward and start rebuilding.

The VUWSA Change Proposal is a step in the right direction for the association. Ensuring the financial accountability of VUWSA is important, particularly in terms of the exec regaining respect and legitimacy in the eyes of the student body. Enough with the scandals already.

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek”
—Barack Obama.

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About the Author ()

Editor for 2010, politics nerd, panda fan and three-time award-winning student journalist.

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