Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) - a socialist perspective

September 21, 2011

This article was originally printed in the Spark December 2010, at a stage when the Workers Party Wellington branch was reconsidering its involvement in Students Assocations. We reprint it now in the lead-up to the VSM bill’s passage on September the 28th and in light of increased student militancy, with significant actions in Auckland and Wellington.

Joel Cosgrove (Wellington Workers Party member and former president of Victoria University Students’ Association).

The Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill is making its way through parliament to make student union membership voluntary. Most people will be totally unaware of the bill and what it means, and may be thinking, “Anyway Freedom of Association is a good thing, isn’t it?”

Currently any student studying at a polytech or university is automatically a member of their student association. A student association levy is generally charged to cover student union running costs, and these range between approximately $75 and $150 per year. Students can opt out of their membership but only upon reasons of hardship or conscientious objection. With a conscientious objection opt-out they are still liable to pay their membership levy.

On-and-off, since the 1970′s, this point of compulsion has waxed and waned as a political issue. Since the 1990s the issue has generally excited the membership of the youth and student wings’ of both the ACT and National parties. National MP Tony Steel brought forward a VSM bill in 1998 that brought about a nationwide referendum in every tertiary institute on the issue of whether student associations would stay “compulsory” or go “voluntary”. The only tertiary institute that went “voluntary” was Auckland University. Many institutes (including Victoria and Otago Universities) voted over 70% to stay “compulsory”. The difference with the current law is that it offers no choice to students on the issue. Funnily enough, students as a whole have voted to remain “compulsory”. “This Bill is an ideological solution in search of a problem. It is bad policy to impose such upheaval and chaos when there are many bigger issues facing the tertiary sector and New Zealand at present,” Said David Do, 2010 Co-President of the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations. “Generations of students have enjoyed the services and opportunities provided by associations, and this shouldn’t be taken away from future students,” says Pene Delaney the other 2010 NZUSA co-President.

While the co-Presidents are correct, the ‘end of nigh’ predictions put forward are also unlikely to come about. The reality is that the bill is being put forward as an ideological back pat to the ACT Party (whose bill this is) and a sop to the youth wing of the National Party. Compromise was apparently agreed on to make it easier to opt out politically, but fraudulence at the Whitirea Students’ Association – of more than one million dollars – scuppered any compromise and the bill is now being pushed through unchanged. Any talk though of the extinction of Student Associations is premature. Auckland University Students’ Association has been voluntary since 1999 and has survived through grants from the University and from pre-existing business e.g. catering, rental properties etc. This is the model that most Student Associations will follow. It won’t be the end of associations as entities, as they can play a role that is useful to the university in terms of mediating student anger and organising against the ongoing attacks on student conditions. The experience of AUSA (of which David Do was a past-president) is that the university can hold the threat of cuts to student association funding if the student association protests or organises in a way that annoys or threatens the institution. Read the rest of this entry »


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