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September 19, 2011 | by  | in Opinion |
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Vice President (Welfare)

Damage to reputation is a wound that never entirely heals. It grieves me to admit that the oft touted 111 year history of our association has not been a consistently proud one. There can be no doubt that VUWSA has produced a vast collection of treasures, services and good outcomes for the students that have been its members, to the extent that the successes significantly outweigh the failures. But those triumphs have, to some degree, been tainted by a litany of errors.

Mismanagement, rent-seeking, and myopia are but a few of the scars that persist in the collective memory of the association’s actions. Yet I write now not to re-litigate old conflicts, or place blame on particular individuals. To do so would be not only craven, but tiresomely futile: that age is already over. And not because of voluntary student membership.

My year working within VUWSA has demonstrated to me the worth of an association. At the outset I was dubious. I ran for VUWSA executive with a group of other individuals and the intention of putting an end to what we perceived to be wastefulness. Indeed, we saw the organisation itself as predominantly useless. It has become apparent that I was labouring under a severe misapprehension.

The great tragedy of the Association is that much of its most vital work goes largely unnoticed; the student body at large remains unaware of the advocacy at all levels of the University administration to protect and further students’ interests. No one hears when a bitter and longstanding academic grievance is resolved. Most students are not at the table when fees are set, levies negotiated, and the performance of the University assessed. But VUWSA is. More importantly, it must remain at the table.

Indeed, this lack of awareness regarding the vital activities that the Association engages in is the root of further problems. Those who have been granted roles of responsibility by students have not always repaid their peers with the required commitment and standard of behaviour. These failings have not been easily remedied, with the strings of democratic accountability severed by the dearth of information that students possess about the Association’s activities. The lack of knowledge is the fault of neither party. The roles that VUWSA undertakes as a representative body are complex, the University bureaucracies opaque, and the task of disseminating sufficient information to members consequently frustrating.

Fortunately, recent years have seen an exceptional change in the culture of VUWSA that has reversed the trend of substandard performance and the lack of communication. The development of more stringent accountability mechanisms, and a more active focus on ascertaining the desires of students have produced good results. Amongst this year’s (in my opinion, excellent) executive, there are two people that I believe to be the manifestation of a new attitude within the organisation. I’m not easily pleasured, so what I am about to say carries some gravity. Seamus Brady and Bridie Hood have been a true delight to work alongside. Selfless, eminently competent, and relentless, these two fine people have ensured that VUWSA fulfilled its purpose this year.

But people move on, and VUWSA must be more than a handful of people with job titles. A few years of competence must not make students complacent. The current state of tertiary education necessitates a collective student voice. In a University consisting of tens of thousands of people, the rights of a lone individual (let alone sizeable groups) are liable to be blindly disregarded.

The controversy regarding voluntary student membership has bred wasteful bickering and negativity, and ultimately fractured a once unified and productive student collective. The diversity of experience and opinion in the student body is a gift that ought not be allowed to divide us. A healthy students’ association is not built upon unanimity, but rather a discourse of thoughtful dissension that thrives on the unique perspectives of all students.

The challenges we face are bigger than VSM v CSM. It is reductive and negligent to pretend otherwise. Whether the organisation is voluntary or not in the year to come, I implore you to come together. I do hope that I am not overly generalising when I suggest that we are all here for one reason: to be part a community of thought that enriches the world. Together we are the Victoria University of Wellington Students, and together we must speak to the University, speak to government, speak to New Zealand, and ensure that this grand ideal is forever a reality.

Let us together look to tomorrow, and imagine what our Association can be.

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