Student unions are great. They provide excellent services, they enrich campus life. They provide an introduction to politics, management skills, journalism skills and much much more. But young people are idealistic, and idealism means Leftie politics. So much older, much greyer, much meaner politicians, who should by rights be leaving the politics of the young to the young, want to stamp out the student unions.
The cover story for the attack on students is “freedom of association”. It’s a bollocks argument, as this truly excellent article by Chris Barton in The Herald makes clear. Let’s work through some highlights.
Students pay high price for freedom
Universal or voluntary membership? That was the question put to tertiary students in 1999 after the National Government passed a law insisting they choose how they should belong to their student association.
Auckland took the voluntary path. It didn’t go well. In 2000 numbers plummeted – just 3000 out of 28,092 students agreed to pay the $30 joining fee. By 2002 the numbers were still dismal – just 2700 out of 31,502 had joined.
Its mandate slashed, the Auckland University Students’ Association (AUSA), with a proud legacy of serving students since 1891, was down, but not out. In 2003 it staged a miraculous comeback, getting 20,000 students to sign up. Membership has stayed around that level ever since. The reason: joining is free. Except the services AUSA provides aren’t free at all. In the first year of voluntary membership there was a $92 rise in the University of Auckland’s “student service levy” from $75 to $167 and it’s been increasing ever since.
Today, a full-time undergraduate student can expect to pay $542 in compulsory levies, which are used in part to contract AUSA to provide services such as catering, advocacy, representation, support for sports, cultural clubs and societies, plus events and entertainment.
So on the voluntary path students are paying the same. But they pay to the University instead of direct to their own organisation.
This is how [National and ACT] want the tertiary student world to be – free to associate or not. Which is why the Government is soon to pass the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill, outlawing universal membership and forcing all tertiary institutions to follow Auckland’s lead.
Never mind that all other tertiary institutions have voted under the 1998 law for universal membership and want to keep it that way because of the detrimental effect on student services.
Never mind too that, as happened in Auckland, somebody – most likely the institution – has to pick up the tab. And that students, while they may be guaranteed the freedom not to associate, will still have pay – whether by membership fee or levy. …
But while AUSA has managed to carry on, what happened at the University of Waikato shows how things can go terribly wrong.
The Waikato Students’ Union (WSU), representing 10,000 students, was the first to opt for voluntary membership, beginning in 1998. That year, membership revenue fell dramatically from $593,827 to just $23,253. In 1997, in preparation for the changeover, the Union’s Campus Movies service was halted and its assets sold.
In 1998, more assets were sold off, including Campus Travel and the student radio station, Contact FM. In the second year, membership revenue fell to $3,442 and the WSU had a trading loss of $130,934.
Losses continued in 2000 when another referendum was held which voted to return to universal membership. In 2001 with $539,901 in membership revenue, WSU started to rebuild services.
“Voluntary membership completely devastated our services, student culture, and ability to support students,” the WSU said in its submission. “It has taken a decade for the WSU to rectify the effects of an ideological policy.”
The voluntary path devastates services and impoverishes campus life. Now let’s get to the heart of the right wing cover story:
“Only full voluntary membership of students’ associations will solve the principled human rights issues and practical accountability and responsibility issues that compulsory membership violates,” Act MP Heather Roy told Parliament during the bill’s second reading. She cited the Bill of Rights Act 1990 which “protects the rights of individuals to determine whom they associate with, and which political ideas they associate with, and to do so without compulsion or undue influence”.
What she didn’t say was that the select committee received legal opinions – including one from Sir Geoffrey Palmer – indicating that universal membership, because of its opt-out provisions, does not breach the right to freedom of association.
Membership isn’t compulsory because students have the option to conscientiously object. The Human Rights Commission also told the select committee “that students’ freedom to not associate is protected sufficiently under the current Act”.
Freedom to associate is already protected. There is no foundation for the right wing attack on student unions, it is pure ideology. And it will do nothing but damage:
But for groups like the Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA) the bill presents nothing but problems – for the students, the Dunedin community and the taxpayer – due to the infrastructure costs and having to replace essential services OUSA would no longer be able to provide.
“The bill claims to be solving a problem that does not exist,” OUSA said, pointing out the association was not designed to service the best interests of only a proportion of students, rather than the whole. It said it did not have the infrastructure to exclude some but not others from its services. As well as creating inefficiencies OUSA said the bill would create the problem of some “freeloading” on the system and “an irresponsible attitude” discriminating against students “based on their choice of association”. …
AUSA is also concerned that its existence is reliant on the continued benevolence of the university – an arrangement that it feels compromises its independence and its core role to act on behalf of students.
“The university could pull our funding at any time if we were to act in a way that [it] disagreed with.”
All of which makes it difficult not see the bill, as Green MP Gareth Hughes told Parliament, as “an ideological problem in search of a solution”, designed to reduce students’ ability to organise and stifle critique of Government policy.
So to sum up, freedom of association is already protected and the cover story for the attack on student unions is nonsense. Students are still going to pay the same, but to the universities instead of their own organisations. They will lose a lot of freedom, most of the learning experiences that student unions afford, probably a lot of services, and leave themselves at the whim of university administrations. Hey students – does that sound like a good deal to you? Don’t forget to thank Act and National at the ballot box…