VSM Has Weakened Our National Student Voice
AUSA President Column - VSM Has Weakened Our National Student Voice
Kia ora, nga mihi maioha ki a koutou katoa.
Voluntary Student Membership (VSM)
Before 2011, the University of Auckland Council was empowered by legislation (most recently the Education Act 1981) to levy current students on behalf of the officially recognised students’ association. At the University of Auckland the recognised students' association is the Auckland University Students' Association (AUSA). This legislation was popularly known as compulsory membership (CSM) because students were forced to pay the fee (unless exempt on the basis of hardship).
In 2011 the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Act came into law and stripped the students’ associations from their legal powers to levy students via the institution. This was described as voluntary student membership (VSM) and was introduced to weaken students’ associations across New Zealand. Well resourced student associations are powerful defenders of students’ rights. By introducing this legislation student voice has been significantly weakened.
Even before this, in 1999, a referendum had been held at the University of Auckland deciding if AUSA should maintain compulsory membership (CSM) or if they should become voluntary (VSM). It was decided by a margin of 5545 in favour – 3814 against that AUSA should be voluntary. The most difficult task since then has been to maintain high quality services despite what resulted in drastic cuts to funding. The Student Service Levy (SSL) in 1999 was $75 with an additional contribution of $83.75 collected on behalf of AUSA. In 2000, after the referendum, no money was collected on behalf of AUSA, but the levy was increased to $167. An argument to make the association voluntary was to save students from having to pay that money; however the University simply increased their levy and distributed the money themselves.
AUSA’s has continued to survive for thirteen years providing universal services without a universal levy because of four contributing factors. The first being is a long and established relationship with the University. Founded in 1891 AUSA has been able to build up legitimacy as an effective representative organisation and high-quality service provider. Considered an integral and permanent part of the structure of the University of Auckland, the collapse of AUSA would have been an embarrassment for the University of Auckland and a considerable loss for student culture.
The second factor is AUSA’s large membership base; the sheer size of the student members AUSA individually signs up each year makes AUSA the largest students’ association in the country. Related to this is that when AUSA was compulsory it was able to comprehensively and effectively build up commercial operations which have been able to sustain it since the legislative change. An association without assets or commercial operations is exposed to the possibility of having no-short term income, an incredible risk to have.
The third reason is the strong and loyal staff, executive, alumni and volunteers who have tirelessly worked for the association. The workplace is incredibly dynamic and there are often drastic and unprecedented changes within the organisation. The emotional investment from people within the association has been immense and the retention of institutional knowledge has allowed for best practice to develop. The genuine interest in the survival of the association has resulted in an immense amount of time and energy expressed by those people who place such high value in their connection to AUSA.
The fourth, and perhaps most critical reason why AUSA has continued in a VSM environment, is a series of funding agreements with the University. Between 2000 and 2012 AUSA had signed funding agreements with the University of Auckland. AUSA agreed to deliver measureable results for this funding. And it did. However, currently AUSA doesn’t have a services agreement due to political negotiations at the end of 2012. In the interests of advancing student culture and ensuring the sustainability of AUSA, securing a funding agreement is AUSA’s highest priority. It’s a no-brainer that students are best placed to understand and cater to the needs of other students, and AUSA is their organisation
In 2011, the University of Auckland wrote a submission against the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill in which was stated: “In the current voluntary scenario at Auckland, the University at present contracts with the Student Association (“AUSA”) and has done so for many years, and wishes to continue to do so”. Although it is disappointing that there has been a break in the continuity of this, I’m positive that both AUSA and the University will be able to work constructively to ensure that AUSA is appropriately resourced in the future.
Student associations and NZUSA in a post-VSM environment
Founded in 1929, New Zealand Union of Students’ Association (NZUSA) is a representative body that advocates for tertiary students in New Zealand. NZUSA is a member based organisation and student associations such as AUSA pay levies to be members. Since VSM was introduced student associations in New Zealand have all had differing levels of success securing funding.
The students’ associations from Aoraki Polytechnic (1999), Bay Of Plenty Polytechnic (1999), Manukau Inst. of Technology (1999), NorthTec (1999), Tai Poutini Polytech (2012), Western Instit. of Technology at Taranaki (2013) and Whitireia Community Polytech (2013) have all collapsed. Christchurch Polytechnic (CPIT) although not yet dissolved have haemorrhaged their savings and could be wound up in the immediate future. Massey’s students’ associations based at Albany, Wellington, Palmerston North and extramurally could all fail if they cannot secure a national services agreement. And while they are functioning now, the associations at Nelson-Marlborough, Unitec New Zealand and the University of Waikato all became voluntary, effectively collapsed and were revived through compulsory levies. Like virtually all associations, since the introduction of VSM in 2012 they are now maintained by funding agreements with their tertiary institution.
The sustainability of student associations everywhere is under threat and naturally this affects the national body. In preparation for VSM, NZUSA underwent structural change in 2011 as the status quo clearly couldn’t be sustained. As a result of the new legislation NZUSA lost $260,000, or 44% of its budget as students’ associations were unable to maintain the current levies. Another national student organisation, University Sport New Zealand (USNZ), has also struggled since VSM was introduced. As a result USNZ now no longer has any paid staff or paid board members. Virtually all local or national student associations are suffering as a result of under resourcing.
It’s in this context that the President of the Waikato Student Union (WSU) has given notice that they are going to withdraw from NZUSA claiming a lack of value. At the same time the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA) and the Otago University Student’s Association (OUSA) have committed to each holding a referendum about withdrawing from NZUSA. Considering the reduction in funding to NZUSA since the VSM Bill was introduced in 2011, if any of AUSA, VUWSA or OUSA left NZUSA it will have to undergo further restructuring. Since NZUSA is only 2.5 FTE’s; a further reduction could render the organisation useless.
Future of NZUSA
In order to address the question of value, a joint press release circulated on the 22 August by OUSA, VUWSA and AUSA proposed reforms create a high performing organisation. These reforms would focus on a more inclusive governance structure, a renewed focus on core services, and a credible role in organising, relevant, national campaigns on issues that matter to students.
Students’ associations need an NZUSA they can have confidence in. Currently only two university presidents and two polytechnic presidents are represented on the NZUSA Board. If the current student presidents do not feel included in the decision making process they will not take ownership over the direction of the organisation. At the NZUSA Conference last year I was elected to be the Vice President of NZUSA. This has allowed AUSA direct control over the governance of NZUSA, and I can see and direct the work that goes on. But if other student associations don’t feel engaged it is harder to communicate value. I want to lead changes which will empower student leaders to feel the possession they should have over an organisation they own.
The core business of NZUSA is representating and advocating for students. A hierarchy of student representatives is something that the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) and University New Zealand (UNZ) are unable to recreate. NZUSA needs to be a strong and unwavering voice on behalf of students. To do this there needs to be student input into top-level decisions coupled with strong organising at the grassroots. Representing, advocating and lobbying for an education system which recognises that students are the biggest stakeholders in learning should be NZUSA’s main focus, and while there has been considerable work in this area it needs to be far more widely communicated. Fringe benefits such as national discount deals are useful, but shouldn’t be the core focus of NZUSA.
NZUSA needs not only react to the media but be proactive as a change agent. It needs to generate and lead the dialogue about tertiary education. Education has to be a prominent issue in the lead up for the 2014 general election. The last five years has seen policy after policy that has been harmful for students. Extracting pro-student commitments from all political parties is achievable and NZUSA can develop on its existing political relationships.
Some measures that would be useful for next year could be local campaign groups on each campus and NZUSA should take a role in ensuring that these exist. The 2014 NZUSA President should visit each campus during Orientation and sign up students who are interested in organising on behalf of students on national student issues. These students connected both horizontally and vertically would be able to quickly share ideas and enthusiasm and proactively coordinate national action.
All universities have class representative systems which are incredibly underutilised. At the University of Auckland there are 1,200 class reps at the coalface of education. If a system could be managed to link class representative systems nationally the reach would include more than around 7500 reps, speaking directly to nearly 200,000 students. By ensuring that there is effective two- way communication between these groups, in real time, issues can be quickly communicated and addressed.
NZUSA needs to be a broad church. Students’ associations are different but all have similar needs, as do their student members. If they don’t stick up for each other they are destined to end up isolated, weak and without support. Only by sharing best practice with one another and by sharing the workload, are they able to best advocate on behalf of students.