Debate: “Don’t make our mistake”

Debate: “Don’t make our mistake”

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@Lundagård

Don’t do it, Sweden. Don’t let your Government legislate for Voluntary membership of Students’ Unions. It will be the death of them as you know it.

Conor Roberts and Joey Randall, co-presidents of the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations, argue against voluntary membership.

Don’t do it Sweden. Don’t let your Government legislate for Voluntary membership of Students’ Unions. It will be the death of them as you know it.In New Zealand, the centre-right National Government enacted legislation in 1998 allowing for students to vote on whether membership of their Student Union remained compulsory (CSM – Compulsory Student Membership). The originally legislation was intended to make voluntary student membership (VSM) of Students Unions mandatory, however after lobbying from the student movement and pressure from National’s support parties in parliament, it was changed to allow for students to decide on their association’s future. This spared us from the widespread destruction we are seeing in student organisations in Australia where the Howard Government has simply abolished compulsory membership.

Negative effects became apparent

Most Student Unions in New Zealand remain compulsory, even though students have the choice to make them voluntary. Some Unions went voluntary but returned to compulsory when the negative effects became apparent. The VSM radicals on New Zealand’s campuses promised students that a vote for voluntary membership would:

• give students more choice;

• save students money; and

• improve the responsiveness of the Students’ Union to students.

An unmitigated failure

After almost eight years of voluntary membership, the legacy of VSM has made it hard to conclude that the experiment was simply an unmitigated failure in New Zealand.

One of key rallying cries of the VSM revolutionaries was the promise of greater ‘choice’. Although superficially under VSM students can choose not to be members of their Union, they were never really ‘forced’ to join in the first place. Under so-called “compulsory” membership, students always had the right to conscientiously object to membership. That right has been enshrined in New Zealand law.

Students loose control over their own affairs

VSM gives students less ‘choice’ over what they pay for. In the Student Unions that did go voluntary, many of the core functions of the Students’ Union (e.g. representation and advocacy) have been taken over by their Institutions. Whereas under “compulsory” membership, all students had the right to direct the activities of the Students’ Union, now students are just presented with the bill for payment by the University. They haven’t saved any money because in many cases the cost for providing the things that the Union provided has gone up now that the Universities are administering them. Students have lost control over their own affairs.

”They will pull the plug”

In any case, you have to wonder how appropriate it is for the University to offer student advocacy and representation services. Would you trust the police to investigate accusations of police brutality? The whole point of student advocacy and representation is to ensure that students have an independent voice in the running of their institution, and someone to protect their interests. What happens when the University run student representation system starts questioning the activities of the University -they will pull the plug.

Student culture harmed irrevocably

Nor has VSM brought greater ‘responsiveness’. Under VSM, the Students’ Union is forced to spend precious time and resources on membership drives and advertising, in order to survive. Under “compulsory” membership, students’ associations can get on with their job of serving students and defending their interests. VSM also eats away at the level and quality of services offered to students. As the Vice-Chancellor of one of our Universities noted, under VSM, “a number of services delivered to students by the student union were abandoned as part of the attempt to reduce the subscription.” Perhaps it’s not surprising that feeling toward his campus, as reported in local media, noted that Waikato University “lacks a bit of campus culture, possibly because it’s [got] a voluntary student union.” VSM guts the life out of campus. With Student Unions no longer having enough resources to promote clubs, events and sports for example, the student experience and culture we fondly remember is harmed irrevocably.

VSM turns you into cash-cows

VSM does not give you more ‘freedom’, ‘choice’ or ‘responsiveness’. It turns students from members of the university community into cash-cows for the University. It robs your ability to decide what services you want, and how much you’ll pay for them. It leaves you without adequate defences against dodgy assessment, poor quality lecturers, and other hassles. And it kills your campus life.

We urge Swedish students to reject voluntary membership.Make your university experience worthwhile – keep compulsory membership.
Conor Roberts & Joey Randall
co-presidents of the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations.
Photo: NZUSA

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1 Comment

  1. On behalf of one New Zealander I’d like to apologise to Swedish readers for this poorly argued piece from NZUSA.

    There’s nothing to fear from voluntary membership. Think of the thousands of successful voluntary organisations such as Greenpeace, Amnesty International, The Red Cross etc

    If you’d like another perspective on voluntary membership visit:
    http://www.studentchoice.blogspot.com/

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