VSM Submission

Just returned from Parliament where I made an oral submission on the voluntary student membership bill to the Education & Science Select Committee. Had 20 minutes, which is quite good for an individual submission and most of it spent on Q&A which is the best part. The seven MPs seemed well engaged on the issues, with some good questions.

I told a story about the student association president in 1985 who slipped into a lengthy constitutional reform paper, which was unanimously adopted, a clause naming him President for Life of the association, declaring the post to fall to his eldest heirs and successors, granting him a title of 10% of the association’s gross income, and naming him King.

The point of the amusing story, was to highlight that this rule change was legal – there is no requirement for SAs to be democratic, let alone any of the other safeguards Parliament normally insists on when granting the power of compulsion. I contrasted this with local government, whose power of compulsion is tempered by the Local Electoral Act, the Local Govt Act, strict consultation requirements, the OIA, the Auditor-General and even as a last resort the Government’s ability to sack them and appoint a Commissioner – as they did with ECan. In fact I suggested that if the Government thinks Ecan needs a Commissioner, then VUWSA is well overdue for intervention and appointment of a Commissioner, with their legacy of dysfunctionality.

The other point I made, which is also in my written submission (after the break) is that I think compulsory membership is actually bad for student associations as it has robbed them of all incentive to be effective, accountable and responsive. I outlined a model of post-compulsory student associations that I think can thrive. I even foolishly offered my time free of change to student associations, to help them with the transition to voluntary (if the bill passes).

I look forward to seeing the Committee’s report. I don’t regard the status quo as acceptable.

My written submission is over the break, including a couple of proposed amendments to the bill.

Submission on the

Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill

This submission in favour of the bill is from David Farrar.

I have a long and extensive background with this issue, having had input into the three similar bills in the 1990s – the Laws, Awatere-Huata and Steel bills.

When I studied at Otago University from 1986 to 1989, I had a number of roles in both compulsory and voluntary student associations. I was the President of the voluntary Carrington Hall Students’ Association and the Commerce Faculty Students’ Association.

I was also the Chair of the compulsory OUSA Student Representative Council, and was twice appointed by OUSA to two year terms of the Otago University Council.

Through OUSA, I attended a number of NZUSA Councils and Conferences as a delegate.

In the 1990s I was the national secretary of Student Choice, and researched extensively the issues around voluntary membership of student associations, including the operation of voluntary associations in several other countries.

My previous submissions on this issue were very detailed and lengthy, covering the normal claims and counter claims on this issue.

In this submission, I don’t intend to go into these areas in great detail, as I am sure other submitters will cover these.

What I wish to focus on is that compulsory membership is in fact bad for student associations, and hence students. Their often appalling track record of mismanagement is not a coincidence but a natural consequence of the incentives created by compulsory membership.

Unless students have the ability to leave, or refuse to join, a student association, then the student association has little incentive to ensure it is accountable and responsive. In fact the incentive is to have as little contact as possible with its own members.

I have some experience with a voluntary (faculty) student association. In one year we increased the membership from 100 to 2,000 by focusing on providing services student valued. Voluntary student associations have existed, and been successful, for many years in New Zealand.

The modern Internet age has been with us for around 15 years, as usage of it became widespread in 1996.

If student associations were not compulsory, they would have embraced the Internet as a vital form of communication and as a way to maximize student participation in student association affairs.

While the overall usage rate of the Internet in New Zealand is 82%, the usage amongst tertiary students is effectively 100%. Every member of a student association is contactable over the Internet. This should have led to a major transformation in how student associations operate, communicate and decide issues – especially as campuses became more physically diverse.

If I was running a voluntary student association, I would be using the Internet to maximize student involvement. Likely activities would be:

  • Regular e-newsletters from the students association
  • Availability of student newspapers over the Internet
  • Submitting the budget and fee level to an electronic vote
  • Online consultation and voting on key issues and policies
  • Comprehensive websites which carry up to date information on the SA and student issues
  • Electronic elections

However, with the possible exception of Massey Extra-Mural, no student association has fully adapted to the Internet age. In the last couple of years most are now at least holding elections online, but their primary method of decision making is still tiny meetings with 0.5% quorums held in venues and at times that a majority of students can’t make.

Again, I submit, this is no accident. Why change the way you operate, when there is no incentive to do so? When you can’t lose a single dollar of income by providing lousy service, then lousy service will continue.

How many compulsory membership student associations placed a draft submission on this bill on their website, and asked their members for input into it? As far as I am aware, almost none.

In fact we saw the opposite at VUWSA, where an inconvenient decision at a general meeting (to support this bill) was illegally ignored.

A move to genuine voluntary membership (where you have to pay a fee to belong, and the student association is disadvantaged if it does not persuade you to join) will eventually result in student associations that are more accountable and responsive to their members, rather than treat them as ATM machines. They would focus on making sure the association provides benefits to members who join, that the advocacy is focused on issues of importance to their members, and that members are regularly engaged and communicated with.

I would like to propose two amendments to the Bill, to help facilitate successful voluntary student associations.

The first is to explicitly allow tertiary institutes to collect voluntary fees of behalf of one or more student associations, as part of the enrolment process.

Enrolment is now primarily done online, and is an appropriate point where a student can be offered membership. The enrolment form should make clear that the membership and fee is voluntary – ie you need to tick a box to add the fee to your total fees. It could provide a link to a statement on the benefits of membership.

I don’t see such offering of voluntary membership as being restricted to the central students’ association. An institution could set some minimum threshold for recognition and also collect voluntary fees for faculty student association and/or Maori student associations. Again, with online enrolment, it would be trivial to even tailor what memberships are offered on the basis of course selection.

So I propose Clause 6 of the Bill be amended to insert a new Section 229(2), renumbering the existing 229(2) to 229(3). The new Section 229(2) would read:

(2) (a) A tertiary institution may offer membership of one or more associations of students to enrolling students, and collect and pass on their fees to that association, so long as it is made clear that membership is voluntary and opt in.

(b) For the sake of convenience, any voluntary student association fee collected by the tertiary institution may be paid for by the Crown’s student loan scheme, if that is the method of paying for the overall enrolment fees.

(c) The tertiary institution may pass on to a student association it collects fees for, the name and contact details, including e-mail address, of any student who joins that association

I also propose a further amendment to Clause 6, to insert a new Section 229(4) to appear after the current proposed 229(2) which would become 229(3) if the above amendment is accepted.

The new 229(4) would prevent tertiary institutes undermining the intent (and benefits) of voluntary membership by forbidding back-door funding contracts that allow an association to offer a faux form of voluntary membership, where the fee is zero.

(4) (a) No tertiary institute may enter into a contract with a students’ association, which provides money to that association, unless the contract is for essential student services, and has been subject to a competitive tender process

(b) Any agreement or contract between a tertiary institute and a students’ association, that provides money to the students’ association, shall not be legal unless it has been approved unanimously by the Tertiary Education Commission as a genuine essential service, and the Tertiary Education Commission is convinced it is compatible with subsection (3)

Thank you for the opportunity to submit. I would like to appear before the Committee for an oral submission also.

David Farrar
31 March 2010