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NZUSA & ATSA misrepresentation

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Educating Gael: (#2) NZUSA & ATSA misrepresentation

Pro-voluntary student membership group Student Choice has released its second tutorial designed to help National Radio's education correspondent Gael Woods understand the issues surrounding compulsory membership of student associations.

In the first tutorial, we explained to Ms Woods why compulsory membership of student associations makes these organisations politically illegitimate.

In this edition we explain how this illegitimacy is compounded at a national level by the New Zealand University Students Association (NZUSA) and the Aotearoa Tertiary Students Association (ATSA).

Gael, during the five years that you've been reporting on education you've often presented statements from NZUSA and ATSA (formerly APSU) as being representative of the views of all tertiary students. This often takes the form of statements such as, "but NZUSA says students oppose the plan".

We can only assume from this that you've been led to believe that NZUSA and ATSA actually represent the views of the 230,000 New Zealanders studying at universities and polytechnics. You could be excused for this because after all, NZUSA claims to "represent the common and collective concerns of students in general" and ATSA claims that it "exists to represent the interests of all students engaged in tertiary education."

We thought it'd be helpful to explain the makeup of both organisations so you'll be able to understand why NZUSA (annual cost to students: $400,000) and ATSA ($340,000) have no mandate to speak on behalf of all tertiary students.

First, it's essential to understand what NZUSA and ATSA are and what they are not. Unlike other groups that claim to represent people, neither NZUSA nor ATSA is comprised of individuals who've decided to join because they support the goals of the organisations.

Instead, the only members of NZUSA and ATSA are the student politicians who are elected presidents of the regional associations that are affiliated to the two national bodies. Misrepresentation starts locally as most regional associations have compulsory membership and the presidents are often elected in votes with dismal levels of turnout.

Second, the NZUSA and ATSA presidents are not elected by a one-person, one-vote system; individual students can't directly vote for the presidents of the two national organisations. Instead the presidents are elected at an annual conference by delegates who are under no obligation to reflect the candidate preferences of the students they claim to represent. In turn, NZUSA and ATSA presidents are accountable not to individual students but to the respective executive committees of both organisations.

Third, funding for NZUSA and ATSA is dependent on compulsory membership. Both organisations are funded through a per capita levy included in the fees students are forced to pay to compulsory regional associations. In the same way that compulsory membership locks students into paying for regional associations, students are also compelled to pay for NZUSA and ATSA. If a student is unhappy with the activities or statements of the national bodies there's no way they can show their dissatisfaction by withdrawing their funding.

Fourth, NZUSA and ATSA claim to speak for all students but in doing so say things that many, if not most, students disagree with.

Take the key issue of the tertiary tuition fees. Both NZUSA and ATSA have policies promoting free education - remember that in promoting this goal they're claiming to speak on behalf of all students. However not all students support 'free' education.

Prior to the last election both NZUSA and ATSA were ecstatic cheerleaders for the Alliance's 'free' education policies. There are over 230,000 tertiary students yet despite making 'free' education their key policy and a failed attempt to create a strategic partnership with the non-existent 'student movement', the Alliance received only 26,000 list votes and lost all their seats. If students were as enthusiastic about 'free' education as NZUSA and ATSA claimed, why didn't the Alliance achieve a far higher level of support?

Furthermore, it's obvious that students who vote for parties that support some level of tuition fees - such as Labour, National, NZ First, ACT, United, Libertarianz - are misrepresented by groups that claim all students support 'free' education.

Students are a diverse group and their political views are as varied as the wider population. However tertiary students are currently forced to join bogus representative groups that are effectively pushing the education policy of the extinct Alliance. We hope you'll consider this Gael next time you hear NZUSA and ATSA attempting to claim that all students have a homogenous view on any issue.

So the "representation" provided by regional student associations and the national bodies is nothing more than a Kafkaesque joke. Students are conscripted into local associations and then people who've been elected with pitiful mandates claim to speak for them. Then at a national level, students find so-called representation is provided by someone they can't vote for, who's from an organisation to which they don't belong, who says things they don't agree with but to whom they have to pay levies.

Gael we're sure you'd agree that this set-up is a scandalous violation of individuals' right to be accurately and legitimately represented. Perhaps an enterprising journalist should look into it.

Of course all this is subjective Gael. We could be wrong - NZUSA and ATSA might accurately reflect students' views. But there's a simple way to test that. Rather than sticking their snouts in the compulsory membership trough, NZUSA and ATSA should adopt a system of individual membership whereby students can assess the value of the organisations and then decide whether or not to join and pay a membership fee directly to the national bodies. This, after all, is how journalists decide whether or not to join their representative bodies such as the EPMU.

However NZUSA and ATSA would never agree to this because they know that given the choice most students wouldn't join these so-called representative groups. That's why both bodies are strong supporters of compulsory membership - it provides guaranteed funding without the need to serve the interests of the people who pay the bills. And that's why fair and accurate representation is not the primary goal of compulsory student associations. Instead, first and foremost, they're interested in defending compulsory membership - a system that gives unaccountable organisations unfettered access to students' money.

Gael, we hope this helps your understanding of why NZUSA and ATSA do not legitimately represent the views of all tertiary students and will help you next time these organisations try and tell you "what students think".

Coming up: Educating Gael: (#3) Who supports compulsory membership and why

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