On the substance of VSM

Grant Robertson blogs:

For me student associations are like local government. Enrolling as a student makes you part of a community, and the student association is the organisation that helps govern that community.

I am amused by how the justifications for compulsory membership of these incorporated societies has changed over the years. Initially the compulsion supporters said that they are student unions, which are like trade unions, and should be compulsory as trade unions were.

Then trade unions lost their compulsion. So the next argument was that student associations are like the Medical Association or Federated Farmers. But over the last 20 years almost every professional industry has separated out its advocacy side from its regulatory side. Hence the Medical Council regulates doctors, while the NZ Medical Association is voluntary. The comparison was of course never valid anyway, as student associations are the exact opposite of a professional association.

Then their next false comparison was to local government. Grant would have you believe that VUWSA is just like the Wellington City Council. I’ll return to this argument later, but for now quote Graeme Edgeler from the Red Alert comments:

I’ve never liked this analogy.

If a university student is like a resident of a community then the local council is the University Administration, and the Students’ Association is a local residents’ association.

If you want to live in an area then you have to pay (directly or indirectly) rates to the local council.

If you want to attend university, you have to pay fees for tuition and services to the university.

In either case you can, you can choose to belong to an association that will fight for your rights with the local government/institution, and may, if the issue is important enough, even address the government(/government).

As I said I will return to the weaknesses in Grant’s arguments shortly. First the most recent false comparison that compulsion defenders are making. They are saying that as KiwiSaver is opt out, so should student associations be. So now they are comparing an incorporated society to retirement investment funds. The analogy is pitiful enough as it is, but also consider that you have a choice of 30+ KiwiSaver funds, while at a campus you get no choice of compulsory student association.

Anyway Grant’s comparison to local government is complete nonsense, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say we accept that student associations are like local Councils, and should have the power to take money off people against their will.

Let us look at the safeguards the Government and Parliament has put around local Councils. They include:

  1. A Local Electoral Act to ensure Councils are democratically elected. There is no requirement for a students association to be democratic.
  2. A Local Government Commission to set wards, maximum pay rates etc.
  3. Statutory requirements for Councils to regularly consult their ratepayers on annual plans etc
  4. Over-view from the Office of the Auditor-General
  5. Subject to the Official Information Act
  6. Ability for the Minister to sack a dysfunctional Council and appoint Commissioners

Student Associations have none of these safeguards. Parliament has terribly let students down by granting student associations the powers of compulsory fees, but not putting any safeguards in place.

I said to the select committee, and have said for over a decade that if you wish to keep compulsory student associations, then as a minimum Parliament should act to put in place some safeguards for students. Grant and never ever did anything about this during their last nine years in office. If they had, then some of the pressure for would have subsided. They only have themselves to blame – they gave their mates a legislative power to have compulsory fees, and refused to put in lace any safeguards for students, as we have for ratepayers and their Councils.

If Grant was sincere about his analogy, then he would agree to some or all of the safeguards above. But never once has Labour shown any concern for those students who have been forced to fund incompetent and even corrupt student associations, against their will. VSM is one answer to the problem, but there were others. I’m not saying I’d prefer the other options to VSM, but Labour has refused to meaningfully engage with Student Choice on any of their concerns.

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