Heather Roy's Diary
Heather Roy's Diary
While Heather Roy is away, Heather's Diary is being written by guest columnists. This week's contribution is from Mike Bridge, ACT On Campus President at Victoria University of Wellington.
When first enrolling at University, I had a choice about many things. I could choose which University to attend, what degree to study for and which papers to take. I could even choose to become involved in student politics. There was, however, one decision that I - like most students - was never given the opportunity to make. I had absolutely no choice about joining the University Students Association.
Every year, students pay a levy to their Students Association. This levy, set by the Association, is spent on whatever they deem to be appropriate. Students Associations claim to be representative bodies - run by students, for students.
All of this sounds relatively harmless - and it would be, if it were actually the case.
Students Associations are among the last organizations in New Zealand who can legally force someone to affiliate themselves. Students Association levies are a compulsory part of our annual fees - if we refused to pay the levy, our enrollment for the year would not be processed, and we would be unable to attend that University.
This 'Compulsory Student Membership' (CSM) is a remnant from the dark days of compulsory trade union membership. Compulsory Student Membership is evident at every University in New Zealand with the exception of Auckland.
ACT On Campus has always campaigned against compulsory membership on the grounds that students, like all citizens, should be free to choose with whom they will - and will not - be associated. To suggest that students should be forced to join a Students Association is similar to suggesting that everyone who votes should be forced to join a political party.
But freedom of association is not the only reason that we oppose CSM. The 'captive audience' that Students Associations enjoy means that there is no incentive to manage our funds responsibly. The Victoria University of Wellington Students Association (VUWSA) recently provided us with a glaring example of this. Despite enjoying a six figure budget surplus only two years ago, the Students Association currently has a similar sized budget deficit. Realizing that their financial future was under threat, VUWSA's immediate reaction was to raise its compulsory annual levy by 21%.
VUWSA ran an expensive campaign, funded by our compulsory levies, imploring students to support the fee increase at a Special General Meeting. Students and clubs were told that if they did not support the increase, their services would be cut. These services only made up 40% of the Association's annual budget, with other expenses including salaries for student politicians, membership of the national student union (NZUSA) and funding for the executive team's pet political campaigns. Students were essentially told that if we did not subsidize VUWSA's financial incompetence it would be our services - and not their salaries - which would be cut.
Of course, such ineptitude is not necessarily representative of all Students Associations, and we may have the opportunity to elect a more financially responsible executive team next year. But whatever happens at VUWSA, students can neither refuse to join, nor resign in protest.
With tens of thousands of students paying fees that are often over $100 a year, many Students Associations have amassed vast financial reserves. They have also structured decision making in such a way that relatively few people control where this money goes. Passing a motion at a VUWSA meeting requires a quorum of 100 and a simple majority vote. In the past, this has meant that Students Associations are able to push through their own agenda by 'stacking' the meetings. As we saw with the levy rise, a student body of almost 20,000 people can have any policy or cost imposed on them at the whim of barely 100 students.
Previous attempts to bring about voluntary student membership (VSM) have been fought desperately by Associations trying to protect their own monopoly. Ironically, students who don't want to join an Association end up seeing their fees spent on campaigns to continue denying them that choice.
Despite this - and partly because of it - ACT On Campus will not give up campaigning for voluntary membership. Whilst the Associations claim to represent students and advocate in our best interests, it seems they are not so generous when it comes to giving students the freedom to choose.
For more information and news from ACT On Campus, check out the ACT On Campus blog at http://actoncampus.blogspot.com/