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Educating Gael: (#1) Representation And Legitimacy

Educating Gael: (#1) Representation And Legitimacy

As a public service, pro-voluntary student membership group Student Choice has initiated a series of tutorials aimed at helping National Radio's education correspondent Gael Woods understand the issues surrounding compulsory membership of tertiary student associations.

During the five years that Ms Woods has been reporting on education, she has always presented the position of compulsory student organisations as being representative of the views of all New Zealand tertiary students.

Unfortunately Ms Woods seems to have missed the entire debate about the legitimacy of compulsory student organisations. Despite compelling evidence to the contrary, Ms Woods continues to present statements from compulsory-based organisations such as the New Zealand University Students Association as being representative of the views of all students.

Student Choice believes it can help Ms Woods improve her coverage of education issues by explaining to her some basic principles of political representation.

Representation and legitimacy

In order for a group to claim to speak on behalf of people, those people must first give their permission to the group. In New Zealand people do this by joining a group. By doing so they are saying, "I agree with the policies of this organisation and you have my permission to represent me." This, for example, is what happens when a Radio New Zealand journalist joins the Labour or Alliance parties.

However most tertiary students never have the chance to join the groups that claim to represent them. This is because 'compulsory membership' forces most students to join a student association before they can study at a tertiary institution. Because students haven't given their permission to compulsory student associations, these groups can't legitimately claim to reflect the views of all their "members". Imagine Gael, if all RNZ reporters had to join the National Party before they could work. Do you think this would mean that the National Party reflected the views of all RNZ journalists? Of course not - what a ridiculous notion! If that happened RNZ reporters would be outraged!

Compulsory membership is offensive because it contravenes the principle of freedom of association. Freedom of association is a fundamental civil right laid out in both New Zealand's Bill of Rights Act and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Freedom of association means that people should be free to legally associate with others, and that they shouldn't be forced to associate with others against their will. In fact, article 20 of the UDHR states that "no one may be compelled to belong to an association". All New Zealanders Gael, except tertiary students, enjoy freedom of association.

Student Choice understands that many reporters like the idea of compulsory student associations because it makes their jobs easier. When reporters are pushed for a deadline and need to know "what students think" about a particular issue, all they need do is pick up the phone, call a student politician from a compulsory student group, and they can supposedly be told what 200,000 people think. After all, without compulsory membership, how would journalists ever find out "what students think"?

The trouble is Gael, that many students just don't agree with the things that compulsory student groups say on their behalf. This is because of the misrepresentation caused by compulsory membership. Most students have never said that they want to join a student association or have student politicians speak on their behalf.

And remember Gael, groups whose "members" are conscripted into joining are not legitimate.

Gael, we hope this helps your understanding of the problem of compulsory membership of student associations and will improve your reportage of the views of tertiary students.

Coming up: Educating Gael #2: How NZUSA and ATSA misrepresent thousands of tertiary students.

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