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October 11, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Perspectives on VSM

Salient feature writer Paul Comrie-Thomson looks at the select committee report on the so-called VSM bill and has a chat to a couple of the people who are concerned about the devastating impact it could have on students’ associations.

The acronyms VSM (voluntary student membership) and CSM (compulsory student membership) have filled the pages of Salient throughout 2010, with analysis of the pros and cons, as well as the possible and intended repercussions of the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill that is currently working its way through Parliament. In case you have been living under a rock for the majority of the year, here is a brief explanation: Roger Douglas’ member’s bill, now sponsored by Heather Roy, essentially aims to remove the right for a student body to decide whether it should be compulsory or voluntary for students to join their institution’s students’ association. The bill would make joining a students’ association entirely voluntary.

As reported by Salient last week, the Education and Science Select Committee recently recommended the bill be passed into law, with a few amendments. This recommendation came in the face of an overwhelming 4837 submissions, of which 98 per cent were opposed to the bill. While the proposed legislation’s passage is by no means guaranteed, the select committee report, as well as indications from the National Party that they will support the Act Party bill, points toward the end of CSM in all likelihood.

The report

The Education and Science Committee report has recommended that the legislation provides that neither current nor prospective students at tertiary institutions be required to become a member of that institution’s students’ association. Moreover, it outlines that the legislation should “prohibit a person from exerting undue influence on any student or prospective student to become or remain a member of a students’ association, cease to become a member of a students’ association, or not become a member of a students’ association.” The report also recommends a complaints procedure to be instituted to deal with such undue influence.

The committee’s report also attempts to deal with the problem of freeloaders: students who take advantage of the services provided by a students’ association without paying fees. The recommendation outlines that “a person who is not a member of a students’ association may not be required to pay a representation fee to the association for any services that the association provides generally to the institution’s student body.” But, this does not prevent a students’ association from “either charging a person who is not a member of the association for the provision of a specific service to that person, at that person’s request; or being contracted by an institution or any other person to provide services to students of an institutions.”

The Committee has set 1 January 2012 as the commencement date for the legislation, in order to “give students’ associations about a year to prepare for the change to voluntary student membership”.

Gareth Hughes, one of the members of the committee, and tertiary spokesperson for the Greens, joined Labour in dissenting from the majority opinion. The report outlines that he could “see no justification for this legislation and agrees with the majority of submitters that the likely outcomes will be damaging to the tertiary education sector”.

In an interview with Salient, Hughes points out that there were a couple of key factors behind the select committee’s recommendation that the bill be passed, despite the overwhelming opposition. Firstly, he speculates that “the message was coming from [Tertiary Education Minister] Steven Joyce’s office, and for the National party, it is just really convenient to weaken students’ voice. They’ve been the thorn in the side of the Government for all the negative things they have done over the past couple of years, as well as under the past Labour government, and it is a way of disenfranchising students’ voice.”

In addition to this, Hughes comments, “the Whitireia corruption scandal happened at the worst possible time”. Police are investigating the Whitireia Independent Students’ Association, where $1 million of the association’s funds are largely unaccounted for. While students at Whitireia are not required to join the students’ association, the system is set up so it is difficult for a student not to be a member. Hughes adds, “I think the members of the committee heard really compelling and strong evidence from all the submitters, and I think they were changing their mind over the course of the submissions, but that [Whitireia scandal] happened when [the National] caucus was considering what to do on the bill.”

Hughes also mentions that the Education and Science Committee was heading towards recommending a system that largely supported the status quo with some minor adjustments, “but unfortunately, the National party have thrown it out.”

“The thing to stress is that what we have at the moment is a compromise, which gives students the right to choose. Some universities have gone VSM, like Waikato and Auckland and some have gone back to CSM, like Waikato. But, it is up to students to choose. What we found was that there is a vast degree of interpretation on the opt-on provisions. Some make it easier, and advertise and promote the ability to opt-out, and some don’t. Some allow donations to go back to a charity of the students’ choice versus a charity of the students’ association’s choice. So that could have all been cleaned up and made explicit. At the moment there is freedom of association and this is consistent with human rights, it could just be a little it clearer for students. But, what the National party has done is gone the hard ideological right-wing route. They won’t let Roger Douglas in cabinet, but they’ll let him pass laws.”

Summing up his reflections, Hughes comments, “I think this is just a good opportunity for the National party to do what they want to do, and that is to weaken student unions, remove students voice and disenfranchise their democratic role. And, it’s convenient because they can blame it on their right-wing coalition partner. But I believe that this is what they wanted.”

Where to from here?

While the legislation still has to pass through two further readings in Parliament, it is likely that the legislation will see passage through the House. In a show of absolute determination, VUWSA President Max Hardy has said that the “focus at the moment remains with defeating the bill. We’re trying to convince National that they don’t want to support this kind of ideological Act party attempt at destroying student representation on campuses. Because that is our focus, we’re not therefore focused on contingencies, on what we would do under VSM.”

Regardless, Hardy concedes that while their primary focus remains with defeating the bill, “it would be irresponsible not to start thinking about what VUWSA will look like under VSM.” As a result, VUWSA are in the middle of considering a number of different international VSM models, as well as engaging in negotiations with the university. While refusing to offer any indication of what VUWSA might look like in a VSM environment, Hardy assures that “any final decision will be put to students either by referendum, or by a general meeting of VUWSA. It will obviously be a democratic decision, because it is about how your students’ association will be structured in the future.”

From the perspective of opposition within Parliament, Hughes comments that he intends to “introduce some amendments to make the bill a bit more palatable. I am investigating extending the time limit for when it comes into effect and I am investigating whether we can bring back a referendum.”

He continues pointing out that a referendum would be an appropriate vehicle, simply because of “the irony of the bill. In the name of student choice, and freedom of association, the septuagenarian Roger Douglas is telling students how they must organise themselves. I want to give students the opportunity to vote on which system works for them.”

The needle and the damage done

While the possible effects of the bill have been well documented, Hughes points out that from his perspective “the really big worry is that student assets are going to get sold. This is what happened to Waikato. They flogged off assets that had been built up over decades, and this is going to happen all across the country. This is going to be the major outcome.

“In some cases, a hundred years of student diligence; of putting away a small amount of money and purchasing some assets is all going to go, which is a massive tragedy. So then, what most student unions are going to have to do to survive is reduce their fees to zero, and then sign a contract agreement with the institution like the situation at Auckland University. In their submission, they basically say that they survive in spite of VSM, and not because of it. They are really under the thumb of the institution and the institution can do what ever they want. So, (under VSM) the independence of student associations isn’t going to continue, because they are going to be under the thumb of institutions.”

Hughes continues: “The way students prioritise services versus the institutions can be totally different.
We are going to see controversial services scrapped. Some universities give crime updates on campus. Some do sexual risk audits of campuses—looking at where the dangerous areas are. Some students’ associations do a performance ranking on lecturers. None of that stuff is going to happen because it’s not in the institutions interest.”

Hardy’s concerns are related. Specifically, he sees the bill as the end of accountable student representation,
“which is important and one of the reasons why Victoria University and VUWSA opposed the bill.” He says that the lack of “direct student scrutiny”, and fewer volunteer hours means that the amount of money charged for the services VUWSA currently provides is likely to steadily increase.

Most importantly, Hardy believes it is essential that there are “people looking out for the best interests of
the students first and foremost, and not just the best interests of the institution. The bill really doesn’t achieve anything for the students. All it does is remove the ability of students to have a say in what services are provided on campus, what sort of education they receive at university, and where their money goes.”

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Comments (23)

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  1. Oliver says:

    In fairness the total voter turnout for the elections was about 1,050. Uni population is 22,000. So only 4.77% of people actually cared enough about their association to vote in it. the 10% threshold was simply ridiculous.

  2. smackdown says:

    yes quite ridiculous oliver you raise a tuppence of a point on thy comment sheet says i

  3. was was forced to join says:

    how does the writer justify this phrase “remove the right for a student body..” Since when does a collective have human rights that are weightier than the simple right of single individuals, who finance these things – to make a decision, individually?

    The collective, must be voluntary, or the ‘collective’ is not exercising ‘rights’ it is exercising domination.

    And what’s with the bogeyman cartoon?

  4. smackdown says:

    the writers name is paulio comedy thompson and he deserves ur respect

  5. Hank Scorpio says:

    That’s enough out of you, smackdown. Return to your kennel.

  6. Paul Comrie-Thomson says:

    …to be debated in Parliament this afternoon.

  7. smackdown says:

    im not afraid of the big bad bear

  8. Raptor says:

    The problem with students’ associations is that they have developed a sense of just not giving a fuck.

    Max Hardly has said he doesn’t think it’s really going to affect students associations if it comes in (that’s your NZUSA President for next year, kiddies – he doesn’t believe it’s even going to pass). Perhaps that is why OUSA decided to leave.

    If I were an entreprenuer I would be batting my eyelids saucily at the University about now because they’re going to be wanting someone to run the services that Associations won’t be able to run once VSM goes through. If I was a university I sure as hell would not contract out to an SA. Fuck that. Liabilities, all of them.

  9. smackdown says:

    lol max hardy legit thinks this wont pass

    max hardy u high

    u so high

  10. Max Hardy says:

    Raptor/JJW (I think),

    I have no idea where you got that from.

    Students’ associations would be irreparably harmed by this legislation, if it passes. The Bill puts vital services and the quality of representation and advocacy at serious risk.

    The University supports universal students’ associations, because they value the role VUWSA plays at Victoria. This includes VUWSA’s role in the quality assurance framework and in ensuring fair-decision making.

    We are still active in our campaigning against this Bill, as is VUW and NZUSA. We think there is a real chance that National will decide not to support an Act Party Bill that delivers nothing for students at all and puts so much at risk.

    We know that many National Party MPs are not comfortable.


  11. Miller says:

    smackdown calls it like it is.

  12. Oliver says:

    The key question is what are the fundamental cost drivers of advocacy, turning up to council meetings, organising events, and having class reps doesn’t need to cost anything. How then will advocacy be affected? The SA only represents 4.77% anyway….

  13. Paulie says:

    Heeey, whaddabout my fockin’ skins, uh? How’s a gabone like me gone pay his fockin’ super now? Yew jerkoffs down at VUWSA betta fink a way outta this, or it’s goodnight fockin’ nurse, youknowhatimsayin’?

  14. smackdown says:

    oh shit better do what paulie says guys

  15. Seamus Brady says:

    Oliver – Advocacy at VUWSA means a lot more than you seem to understand – it includes the professional and experienced student advocate who handles many cases, some that are extremely sensitive. This work not only benefits the affected student(s), but all students, as it ensures the University dispenses fair discipline, decision making and has robust and accountable processes.

    Having well supported, informed, and trained student representatives at all levels isn’t free and neither is having solid student advocacy. I’d be extremely concerned if they just “turned up” to things without any of that.

    Also assuming you are the same Oliver who thinks the VUWSA President gets a 15k guaranteed bonus – they don’t and never have. There is no bonus. Where bonuses do exist and outlined in the Constitution for general executive, they are never guaranteed and are only awarded where work is completed over and above what is required.

    Max and I would be more than happy to meet with you to explain things in more detail and address any concerns might you have. Email us.

  16. Shitkicker says:


  17. er says:

    clubs etc. > advocacy. you guys can’t even advocate your own survival

  18. Miller says:

    Well if you ask me it’s about time we had a chick for a president.

  19. smackdown says:

    “but in 2009 we had…”
    “YOU HEARD ME!” yells miller

  20. Miller says:

    Well actually I was leaning toward Seamus Brady is a chick, but yeah, that works too.

  21. smackdown says:

    nobody cares where you’re leaning drunky get off the roof put some pants on

  22. Paul Comrie-Thomson says:


    “Tomorrow night is members’ night and the Government has indicated the House will sit under Urgency next week to make progress on bills on the Order Paper.”

    First up should be the VSM Bill…

  23. smackdown says:

    dont worry friends ill still read salient when its a 10 page a5 advertorial printed on napkins stolen from the wellington city mission

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