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VSM – why it needs to go.

Written By: - Date published: 8:35 am, August 2nd, 2018 - 62 comments
Categories: act, community democracy, democracy under attack, education, greens, labour, nz first, roger douglas, tertiary education - Tags: , , , ,

In 2010 the ACT Party with the help of National managed to pass a piece of legislation that damaged student democracy, and blatantly ignored public opinion. Voluntary Student Membership or VSM sounds like a horrendous STI, and its impact has been to screw student democracy.

Prior to 2010 students had a choice as to whether membership of their students’ associations at tertiary institutions would be universal or voluntary. This was due to New Zealand First who in coalition with National in 1998, could see the contribution democratically elected students’ associations make. In 1999 all campuses had a vote on whether students’ association membership should be universal or voluntary. In the University sector all but Auckland and Waikato voted to retain universal membership, and Waikato voted to return to universal membership shortly.

Students’ Associations provided democratic representation at all levels of tertiary institutions. They represented students who faced difficulties with the institution and provided support for dealing with agencies like Studylink. They lobbied institutions for welfare services like foodbanks and hardship grants, and in many cases helped provide these services directly.

When ACT put forward the bill to make all students’ associations voluntary, the National Party said it would listen to submission at select committee and then make a decision. Over 90% of submissions were against this bill sponsored by Roger Douglas. Students from around the country highlighting importance of democratic representation.

More of Roger's harmful policies

Roger Douglas did the same to Students’ Associations in 2010 as he did to the NZ economy in the 1980s. In both cases his polices have done lasting damage.

Recently on my blog I have been talking about my time on the students’ association exec. Looking back much was achieved. Students’ Associations provide strong representation on campus and valuable services to students. The student movement struggled for nearly 30 years to end crippling student fees, and in 2017 a Labour led government was elected on the promise they would do just this. Students’ associations continue to play an important role. Sadly after half a decade of VSM many of them are now struggling to survive.

The legislation NZ First got National to pass in 1998 putting the question of membership of Students’ Associations to a democratic vote of all students work well. NZ First, now in coalition with Labour and the Greens should unlike national, listen to the 90% of submissions on the current law and repeal Roger Douglas’s 2010 VSM legislation.

By Nick Kelly

62 comments on “VSM – why it needs to go.”

  1. Gosman 1

    If you are correct and student Associations achieve a lot then there should be no problem attracting members. I am not sure why you would worry about forcing people to join an organisation that gives them lots of benefits.

    Your argument would equally apply to membership of ANY Trade Union so does this mean you support compulsory Trade Union membership as well if it is accompanied by a similar democratic vote of all workers in a business or sector?

    • ianmac 1.1

      A hard up student would not sign up because it costs money. By the time an issue did become urgent and relevant, there would be too few to fight it because the union would hardly exist. Many unions are sort of dormant but arise when there is an issue. Teachers are very non militant and most of the time branches have trouble gaining a quorum. About every 20 years the dragon stirs.
      Everyone should belong to a union. (The National Party is a Union which jealously guards its interests sometimes with devious actions. Dirty Tricks?)

      • Gosman 1.1.1

        The National party does not force people to join it.

        • lprent 1.1.1.1

          From what I have heard the membership fee is the cost of raffle ticket – about 2 dollars. And that is how most ‘members’ are signed up.

          And they have no objection to people buying raffle tickets for others. Usually you know from the type of junk mail they start to pester you with.

          Unfortunately that doesn’t pay for real services. Unlike the National Party which tends to rely on few wealthy donors who pay for the services to themselves (and run raffles to get “members” as a figleaf), student unions are real world organizations trying to provide a widespread service.

          Of course that could be just a rumour. Albeit a remarkably persistent one.

          But in any event, if university students were able to sign up for a two dollar raffle ticket to get free junk email then I suspect that they would do so.

        • DS 1.1.1.2

          Wake me up when the National Party finds itself as a service-provider for 20,000 students.

    • DS 1.2

      Ever heard of the free-rider problem in economics?

      VSM is basically like trying to run a government based off voluntary taxation.

      • Brwildered 1.2.1

        Went to a number of universities found most student union where simply there as first rung of the lefty ladder In politics, big waste of time and more of a left “””” fest

    • Draco T Bastard 1.3

      Student Associations are a lot like unions in that they provide essential services that are almost never seen or felt by the people in them – until they no longer exist. At that point we see wages and conditions deteriorating but nobody connects it to the loss of the unions/student associations.

      The truth goes the other way. The rise of unions and student associations saw a rise in wages and conditions in both places. It’s the better conditions that come with being a democracy rather than a top down dictatorial entity such as a business.

  2. millsy 2

    I actually favour a system in which we have student ‘councils’ that do the same things that associations do, only you are not a ‘member’ of them. Seems less messy.

    In any case, VSM is just another part of the commodification of tertiry study,in which the life and culture is sucked out of our universities and the only say that students have is ‘if you don’t like it, vote with your feet and go elsewhere’.

    • Drowsy M. Kram 2.1

      Strongly agree re commodification of the tertiary sector.

      https://jacobinmag.com/2017/08/grade-inflation-corporate-university

      Neoliberalism is recognized as the dominant political and economic philosophy across the globe, and new managerialist, corporatized practices, as its “organizational arms,” are ubiquitous within the higher education sector worldwide.

      “Do You Want Fries With That?”: The McDonaldization of University Education—Some Critical Reflections on Nursing Higher Education

      http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2158244018787229

    • Ed1 2.2

      I am not sure whether we want a “less messy” system – if it meant a student “Council” appointed by the University, or with no ability to levy fees, it could not “so the same thing that associations do” – would they have any power, or any authority?
      You do however raise an important point – receiving legislative power to levy all students should needs perhaps some philosophical reason to pass a bill. I believe life and culture is what it is about – students should be joining an institution of learning that goes beyond the narrow confines of courses in which they are enrolled – they should be able to represent their own interests, but they should also realise that what they are learning relates to a world around them, and that they have a place in that world as part of a generation that will be in a position to make decisions that change that world – for many, through becoming eligible to vote, but hopefully also for calling out wrongdoing, hypocrisy, and abdication of stated ideals of a university. Let us at lest have one time in the life of our idealistic students when they feel that ideals do matter, that collectively they can make a difference, that some traditions should be supported, and that there is more to life than . . . ..
      What reason do others have for giving effectively the power to tax students, and what restrictions should such an association have on its activities?
      Are student associations in any way equivalent to those organisations such as professional associations that retain similar (or arguably more coercive) powers? Should the law society become a voluntary body without power to regulate its members?

  3. R.P Mcmurphy 3

    The people who destabilised the student unions were mad ideologues who did not care about anything except their own stupid ideas. They tried to bugger everything just to justify their inanity.

    • Phil 3.1

      mad ideologues who did not care about anything except their own stupid ideas. They tried to bugger everything just to justify their inanity.

      That also describes the people who I saw run for student union positions
      (hashtag anecdote is not data).

      • ropata 3.1.1

        Sure student councils are colourful but the important thing is they are a powerful voice representing all students, and they can mobilise a lot of people if necessary

        • Phil 3.1.1.1

          If you’re using ‘colourful’ as a euphemism for ‘inexperienced groups often completely unaware of basic governance oversight principles, and exposed to a wide array of risks without any real robust mitigant processes in place’, then I agree with every single part of your comment 100%.

          • Draco T Bastard 3.1.1.1.1

            Sounds like a really good place for inexperienced people, such as students, to get a better understanding of politics then.

  4. Anne 4

    That must have been Roger Douglas’ last hurrah under a neoliberal/corporate backed banner. He retired permanently from politics in 2011 since when he must have had a bit of an epiphany because last year he was reported to have said he was backing a Labour led government again.

  5. Tuppence Shrewsbury 5

    Still trying to win the war you lost?

    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/17/hiroo-onoda-japanese-soldier-dies

    Student unions are suffering because they are stacked with incompetents, the majority of whom then normally go on to the labour party and sometimes wind up running countries.

  6. Chris T 6

    The important bit of your article is here

    “In the University sector all but Auckland and Waikato voted to retain universal membership, and Waikato voted to return to universal membership shortly.”

    Students democratically voted they didn’t want compulsory Union membership.

    Why do you want to go against the democratic choice of students?

    As and aside, I find it funny how when this topic is brought up the anti-VSM people have this severe aversion to using the word compulsory and keep using the weasle word “universal”

    • McFlock 6.1

      Because it wasn’t compulsory. If someone had genuine objections to membership, they could opt-out.

      And the situation we have now is that the democratic choice of students has no power – VSM is forced upon them no matter how they would vote.

      • Chris T 6.1.1

        And it is opt in now

        What is the difference?

        It is the same argument as the religion in schools argument

        I personally think that should be made opt-in. You presumably disagree and want to keep opt-out?

        • McFlock 6.1.1.1

          The difference is that there’s little to no direct incentive for people to sign up for a service that they receive anyway. Even if declining membership rates will affect that service in the future.

          Whereas if they sign in automatically and then have to expend effort to leave, only the ones who give a shit will expend that effort.

          And wtf has the religion in schools argument got to do with anything?

    • Draco T Bastard 6.2

      Students democratically voted they didn’t want compulsory Union membership.

      Two student bodies did and then one went back.

      Why do you want to go against the democratic choice of students?

      The choice was actually taken away from them by central government in a dictatorial manner.

      • JohnSelway 6.2.1

        Um no – it was taken away because it violates the NZ Bill of Rights

        • Draco T Bastard 6.2.1.1

          [citation needed]

          • JohnSelway 6.2.1.1.1

            Well, let me put it another way. I don’t know if that was specifically the reason but it does violate the BoR which guarantees freedom of association

            • Draco T Bastard 6.2.1.1.1.1

              Freedom of association was maintained. You didn’t have to study at that particular tertiary institution but in doing so you do actually do become a student that associates with the other students.

  7. JohnSelway 7

    Freedom of association is an important freedom and compulsory student membership actually violates the NZ Bill of Righs

    • DS 7.1

      Except that the old system wasn’t compulsory. It was universal, with a provision to opt-out (I actually signed off the last opt-out request at Otago).

      • JohnSelway 7.1.1

        Some years ago I opted out from Massey but I still had pay each year.

        So yes you could “opt-out”….sort of…

        • DS 7.1.1.1

          You paid because otherwise you get the Free Rider problem. You benefited from the existence of services that would not otherwise exist. Again, VSM is basically trying to run a government based off voluntary taxation.

          Meanwhile, nothing was stopping you opting out.

    • McFlock 7.2

      Well, if that were the case they wouldn’t have had to amend the law in 2010.

      • JohnSelway 7.2.1

        Bill of Rights specifically states freedom of association.

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for associations/unions not for them to be compulsory

        • McFlock 7.2.1.1

          Between depending on institution service agreements for income and the freeloader problem, making them opt-in is killing them by a thousand cuts.

          But if universal membership were against the NZBoR, this would have been unnecessary.

          Nobody forced you to join a specific students’ association. Even if you hadn’t been able to opt out as you did (cry me a river about your hundred bucks or whatever which probably went to charity anyway), nobody forced you to study at that institution. That was your choice.

          • JohnSelway 7.2.1.1.1

            So what your saying is that I can get fucked and not study at my local uni I I don’t want to join the union?

            People have many reasons to not want to join a union. If a union started getting right-wing or religious I don’t want to find them or be a part of it

            • Draco T Bastard 7.2.1.1.1.1

              So what your saying is that I can get fucked and not study at my local uni I I don’t want to join the union?

              By going to that tertiary institution you become a student that associates with the other students and you did so voluntarily. At that point you owe it to those other students to put some effort into that association.

              If a union started getting right-wing or religious I don’t want to find them or be a part of it

              That would only happen if it was democratically decided to do so which would probably never happen.

              • JohnSelway

                Actually you don’t owe it to anyone if, like I did, actually studied abroad and didn’t associate with anyone.

                And the point I was making was that of a union started going religious people of other religions or atheists shouldn’t have to support it. Whether it is likely or not is irrelevant. It’s a hypothetical

            • McFlock 7.2.1.1.1.2

              Does the BoR require every service you desire to be available locally?

              Is there some legislative requirement that every school and university within 10km of your residence fully complies with your political and religious ideals?

              What makes you so special?

              • JohnSelway

                Im no more special than anyone else.

                Look man, I don’t get the attitude you are hitting me with – I support unions etc but I support the greater laws of freedom to associate, speak and the like

                • McFlock

                  Freedom to associate doesn’t mean that you get to choose the terms on which someone associates with you.

                  If I want to socialise with particular people, I know I’ll also have to put up with their annoying partners from time to time. Otherwise I can choose to not associate with both people.

                  And the attitude is because while you might support unions, you’re spouting the exact arguments that ACT on campus used to weaken them.

                  • JohnSelway

                    No that’s right but it gives me the freedom to chose whether I not I want to join, participate or fund an organization or association based on its policies or beliefs.

                    If a stupid union started doing things I was unhappy with I can withdraw support and others can join or vice versa.

                    It might have been ACTs idea but it is still in accordance with the Bill of Rights

                    • McFlock

                      Nobody forced you to join in the first place, any more than I’m forced to associate with my friend’s annoying spouse.

                      But a consequence of my choice to not associate with that spouse is that I need to not associate so much with my friend, if at all.

                    • JohnSelway

                      Indeed – so compulsory union membership or student association membership conflicts with the Bill of Rights.

                      I’m not quite what you are arguing for or against

                    • McFlock

                      my friend is the university
                      my friend’s spouse is the students’ association.

                      If I associate with my friend, I have to associate with their spouse.
                      But I’m not forced to associate with my friend, so I’m not forced to associate with their spouse.

                      No conflict with BoR.

                    • JohnSelway

                      Would be interesting to see the challenged in court actually using that example because I understand the point you are making but wonder what legal basis/precedent has been set

                    • McFlock

                      The fuckers tried everything back in the day. When democracy didn’t work, they needed to change the law to suit themselves.

                      Says it all really.

    • SPC 7.3

      It’s not compulsory to go to university and be a student.

      And if one does, to become a professional, then one becomes (no opt in or out) and be part of the professional body’s code of behaviour, or be struck off – doctor, lawyer, teacher etc.

      Also as a citizen you have no opt out, and you pay tax accordingly. A university is just a subset of this.

  8. Stuart Munro 8

    Not sure the student associations can compare themselves to unions. In my time they were characterized by self-aggrandizing individuals who inspired universal apathy.

    • McFlock 8.1

      I’ve known one or two workplace unions like that, though 🙂

      But the thing about my old students’ association was that in my time there we lobbied for and got blind marking of exams (the student name wasn’t on the paper above the marks tally if the student so desired), formalised assessment of papers that included student opinions, a food bank, lockers on campus, and a variety of other support services for students. None of which were restricted to the membership rather than all students.

      Fuck the student politicians. The ones who really made a difference were the advocates, the coordinators, the admins – most of whom were part-time staff paid minimally.

      The biggest change I observed from VSM is that student advocacy, from issues with papers to more strategic issues like divisional restructuring, has taken a back seat and is largely delivered as a supplicant to the university on the occasions it does happen. Because if the association pisses off the institution, the service contract takes a hit, just to send a wee message about the power dynamic at play. You don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

      • Ed1 8.1.1

        I raised a few issues above which have been at least partly answered in the 7 and 8 post numbers. I see a student association as acting partly as an advocacy group for student interests (fees, loans, services from the university etc), and also partly as a proxy for the professional associations that many students will find themselves members of later in life. I recall student associations speaking out on a range of issues, including academic freedom, the place of universities in our society, and also on moral issues such as ensuring that students are informed on issues such as drugs, alcohol, rape (prevention and related laws), foreign affairs, integrity of government. rental laws and requirements, human rights, employment law, etc . . .

        Some of these are of course directly of interest to students, but many are a-political. While Student Associations are often linked with the left of politics, I know there are a number of students who come from the dark side and remain there while contributing to the affairs of the association.

        As far as legislation to bring back strong / compulsory with opt-out associations, there will never be support from some who see no problems with legislative recognition of compulsory associations for doctors, lawyers and accountants – can they be justified?

  9. Jum 9

    I submitted against this bill back then, in the secure knowledge, apart from researching and finding the bill’s inadequacies and separatism, that whatever Roger Douglas (and his fan Roger Kerr) wanted to do was never for the benefit of all New Zealanders, only a few.

    He was a nat party construct, knowing that nats were on the political wane and invented to pretend empathy for the low wage workers and beneficiaries of New Zealand, to get into power again and continue nat’s destructive people policies. The proof of that was always in the eventuating act party.

  10. Philj 10

    Compulsory unionism no. Freeloaders Benefiting from union negotioations, no.

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