VSM at last

Today the Bill, or more formally the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill should have its third reading and effectively pass into law to take effect on 1 January 2012.

For those who want to see the debate, this is my rough estimate of timing:

  1. Question Time 2 pm – 3.15 pm (there are three questions to committee chairs)
  2. General Debate 3.15 pm – 4.15 pm
  3. Royal Society of NZ Amendment Bill. I presume Heather Roy will move it reports progress within the first hour. This means it would finish somewhere between 4.30 pm and 5.15 pm
  4. Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill. Should start between 4.30 pm and 5.15 pm.
  5. Valedictory statements from Keith Locke and Mita Ririnui from 5.30 pm to 6 .00 pm
  6. Dinner Break 6.00 pm – 7.30 pm
  7. Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill continues at 7.30 pm for a total of two hours so should conclude somewhere between I estimate 8.30 pm and 9.15 pm

Hundreds of thousands of students are going to gain the ability to choose whether or not they wish to join a students’ association. Over time this will impact millions of people, albeit it in a minor way. Heather Roy will have achieved a lot more than many MPs do in their time.

Labour will want to repeal the law in future and force students once again to fund their apprentices. However I think they will find that in a few years doing so will be immensely unpopular.

I note TV3 reported Labour Party activist and NZUSA President David Do as saying:

“[Students] oppose ACT’s bill, that’s why they are protesting, and they feel increasingly frustrated and appalled that the Government is continuing to ignore their voice on this issue,” he says.

This sums up all that is wrong with compulsory membership. David Do does not speak for all students, or even for a majority of students. NZUSA have never asked students if they want student association membership to be voluntary or compulsory. The only scientific poll done amongst students (during the last VSM bill) on this issue showed a majority support voluntary membership.

Student Associations and their benefactors in Labour have no-one to blame for VSM than themselves. They have had massive opportunities to reform, and to provide safeguards that should go with compulsion. But they granted the power of compulsion with none of the safeguards such as you see with local government (not that I am accepting the validity of the comparison, just pointing out the safeguards).

They also made some huge tactical blunders during the VSM Bill progress. As far as I know they never once asked to meet with Student Choice representatives, who are primarily with Act on Campus and Young Nationals.  They failed to grasp that those two groups have considerable influence with their MPs, and are the ones who have pushed their caucuses to support the law change.

Some of the amendments proposed by Grant Robertson I supported (and said so in my submission to the select committee), specifically mandating that tertiary institutes should be required to offer student association membership as part of online enrolment (on an opt in tick basis).  If Labour had gone to Student Choice and said “Look we disagree on the law, but here are some amendments that you guys might support so that student associations do well under a voluntary regime, then it is quite possible Student Choice would have lobbied National and ACT MPs to agree to some of the amendments which didn’t dilute the principle of voluntary and opt in. By neglecting to engage with Student Choice, the student associations have actually made things much harder for themselves.

I was at the Aotearoa Student Press Association Awards on Saturday evening, and did reflect that it was a bit sad that some student media will struggle under VSM, due to the lack of compulsory funding. I am a huge fan of student media and enjoy reading much of their work. That does not mean I do not support VSM though. Just because I personally think student media is a good thing, is not sufficient reason that all students should be forced to fund it.

Hopefully VSM may act as a catalyst for some student newspapers to transform more into the digital age. As even large multi-national struggle with the economics of print publications, the medium may be somewhat historic. There is an opportunity for student newspapers to possibly dispense with a print edition and produce websites and e-papers which will become important hubs of student life. You may even be able to develop a subscription model. If I could get Salient on my iPad for $10 a year, I’d pay for that.

Likewise VSM does provide some opportunities for student associations, as well as considerable challenge. Student associations historically have been pretty lousy at communicating and consulting with the student body, let alone asking them what they want. Student associations need to spent some time and money asking what do students want from us, and what will they pay for.  They should consider innovations such as differing levels of membership fees. Maybe you can join the association for $10 just to have them represent you, but for say $50 you also get discounts in the cafe, free entry to orientation events and the weekly e-newspaper.

Some associations may try to undermine the law, as Auckland and Canterbury do, and have a zero membership fee and get the university to fund them. Apart from the fact that the University may be in breach of new regulations around student services levies, any association that does this will be missing the point of voluntary membership. Being dependent on members wanting to join can actually improve you, because it focuses a lot of your efforts on making sure you are providing the services students want, rather than the services you want to deliver. Even a $5 membership fee would provide that incentive. A $0 fee means that you have no idea if members see any value or not as there is no cost in joining.

There are some good student associations out there. It will be tougher under VSM, but good ones can raise to the challenge. But student associations in many many countries operate well with voluntary membership. Even in NZ, there are many voluntary student associations – the faculty student associations. Many of these operate with small budgets but have dedicated officers.

Finally I hope the universities and other tertiary institutions do their part to make voluntary membership work for student associations. By this I don’t mean backdoor funding deals which fatally undermine their own advocacy that universities are under-funded, but by allowing people to opt into membership through the enrolment process. In fact there is the potential to offer membership not just to the central student association but also the faculty students associations (to those studying the appropriate courses) and even the Maori students association (to those of Maori decent).  One could even offer membership/forwarding of contact details to registered clubs and societies. If you tick the box next to club or soc, they will be given your name and e-mail address.

Each university probably has its own online enrolment software, but NZUSA could play a useful role in developing specs for what changes would be needed to allow some of what I have advocated above. I think it would be great if as people enrol, they get offered the chance to join all relevant student associations, and indicate which clubs and societies they wish to have contact them.

Smart student associations would have been talking to their universities and institutes since November 2010, when the Government made it clear they would vote in favour of this law progressing. They’ve had 14 months to make changes, and prepare. If they put all their faith in Labour’s boasting that they could stop the law from passing before the election, then they were very foolish. However it is still better to be late than never. Within reason, I’m happy to donate my time to helping any student association with preparing for VSM (so long as it is after 26 November).

Anyway as someone who has been a proponent of VSM since I  joined OUSA in 1986, I’m delighted to see this law change finally occur. Students will finally be free to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to join a students’ association, and have the same rights of non-association as pretty much every other member of society.

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