VSM redux: Douglas’ bill and the lay of the land

http://alburywodongaonlinechronicle.files.wordpress.com/2008/03/ballot-box-thumb.jpgTrust us to begin with the big issues: you may or may not be aware that Roger Douglas’ Voluntary Student Membership Bill was pulled from the hat late last month. Salient‘s Michael Oliver has a pretty decent summary of the state of play in this week’s issue, but a little historical context wouldn’t hurt either. Here’s one I prepared earlier…

1999 was a rough year for New Zealand. The Black Caps were thrashed by Pakistan in the World Cup semifinal. Our world-famous cabaret dancer Freda Stark finally carked it. Natalya Meltzer dumped me a week before my birthday and the third form disco. To top it all off, it was National’s last year in power under Jenny Shipley and, not coincidentally, the year in which nationwide referendums on voluntary membership managed to cripple half the country’s student unions. Now that National and ACT are back in the saddle, it’s entirely possible that they could revisit the Voluntary Students Association Membership Act – and if they do, it’s vital that you know what VSM is and what happened last time.

For the longest time, student unions were essentially administrative bodies for the various clubs and societies on campus. Even NZUSA, the first national lobby group for students, was originally formed with the noble and lofty goal of co-ordinating extramural sporting events (which later became the University Games). However as time went on and student populations grew, unions became increasingly politically active, reaching a peak in the 1970s and 1980s with protests of the Vietnam war and apartheid. But until the education and welfare reforms of the 1990s students themselves suffered little more than the vague pangs of zeitgeist: fees were practically non-existent, employment was optional but unnecessary, accommodation costs were negligible, benefits plentiful and the demands of academia far less rigorous than today. Unfortunately, that was all about to change.

A quick succession of policies from both National and Labour governments catapulted students into the free market and forced upon them truly extraordinary rates of  inflation. The floodgates were first opened in 1990 by then-Education Minister Phil Goff, who introduced a $1250 flat tuition fee despite assurances in the 1984 election campaign that Labour would maintain free tertiary education. Student voters were understandably indignant, and National’s education spokesman Lockwood Smith responded by promising in a televised interview to not only abolish the tuition fee if National were elected but to resign from Cabinet if his party did not follow through (National instead farmed out collection of the fee to individual institutions while cutting government funding, resulting in widespread fee hikes. Astute readers will note that the Honourable Lockwood Smith now presides over Parliament as Speaker of the House).

Politics being what it is, none of this actually happened and fees instead skyrocketed by around 13% per year under the new National government; meanwhile the student allowance’s parental means tests (which National had also promised to scrap) were expanded from under-20s to under-25s. Students took to the streets once more, but this time with less bravado, fewer numbers and more genuine angst. The old time-consuming tactics of rallies and sit-ins were becoming increasingly difficult due to mounting academic pressures and untenable living costs, and by the time the 1996 elections rolled around a new generation of students had arisen for whom huge loans and 50-hour working weeks were practically the norm. Politics was a game best left to politicians, and nowhere was this felt more keenly than in the voluntary membership movement of the last decade.

By the mid-90s it was clear that student unions posed a problem for National. The public reaction to funding cuts and mounting student debt was seriously eroding the Government’s credibility on education and welfare issues – an Achilles’ heel for a Cabinet that prided itself on pragmatic policy and commonsense. Fortunately, an elegant solution presented itself.

Up until that point all student unions had operated on a system of compulsory membership: students were automatically enrolled with the union when they enrolled with the institution. The institution then included union levies along with enrolment and tuition fees and passed the money along to the union. This meant two things: firstly, the union had a stable and predictable rate of income, and secondly, it had considerable political leverage since it supposedly represented the views of all students on any given campus. However in 1995 at Waikato University a small group of libertarian and right-wing students had formed in the belief that compulsory membership was a violation of the right to freedom of association, and was thus unethical and illegal. This group, dubbed Student Choice, would become a nationwide campaign in the years to come and many members would go on to close involvement with both National and ACT. In any case National seized on the movement as the perfect opportunity: Student Choice and its affiliates would sow dissent about the unions’ aims and abilities, but could couch their arguments in the language of civil liberties. Meanwhile National had to do little more than light the legislative touchpaper; the Voluntary Students’ Association Membership Bill of 1998.

Sponsored by National’s then-Hamilton East MP Tony Steel, the Bill essentially forced all existing compulsory associations to hold a referendum on whether to turn voluntary by no later than May of the following year. The results of the referendum would be legally binding, and if members chose to go voluntary each union would be obligated to refund their membership fees for that year in full (meaning that no income would be received for the year 1999). To make matters worse, the unions would then have to commit a large chunk of their resources to simply marketing themselves and recruiting new members as old ones graduated – and all the while feeding a vicious cycle of disillusioned members and diminishing returns which in turn undermined the union’s symbolic power as the definitive student voice. A move to voluntary membership was practically a deathblow, said the unions – and in many cases, their fears were justified. Around half of the country’s polytechnic unions went voluntary and imploded from a subsequent lack of funding. The Waikato Student Union – the first to go voluntary – plummeted from 11,000 members to less than 700 in the space of a year, while the Auckland University Students’ Association was quickly eclipsed in size by the Auckland University Drinking Society. Even those that survived the referenda scraped through on remarkably slim margins – at Wellington Polytechnic, later Massey Wellington, the compulsory movement won with less than fifty votes to spare – and voter turnouts across the country comprised no more than 20-30 percent of the student population overall. It was a bitter pill for the unions to swallow, but even the winners had to acknowledge it: the political mandate that had sustained them through the 90s was all but spent.

Much changed with the arrival of a Labour Government, and although these grievances were not explicitly redressed it can at least be said that there were some significant concessions. The rigors of the parental means testing process were slightly relaxed, while the suspension of interest on student loans slowed the accumulated national student debt to just over $10 billion. But despite the mood of contrition, student unions were no longer as vocal as they once were: many had shifted their focus from education policy to purely institutional issues. Others, such as AuSM of AUT and UCSA of Canterbury, had entered into lucrative service contracts with their institutions and sacrificed autonomy for financial security. Others still, such as Victoria’s VUWSA and the Waikato Student Union, were derailed by special interest groups and aspiring electioneers (notably Young Labour, ACT On Campus and the Communist Workers’ Party). Some have returned to compulsory membership (Waikato and the Unitec Students’ Union), but few have regained their popular momentum. These days political activity is largely delegated to the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations, which works behind the scenes on independent research, Select Committee submissions and the odd forum with the Ministry of Education.

*****

So, what to make of the Big Bad Bill?

Well, according to Salient‘s former political reporter Conrad Reyners, National put the kibosh on it at last year’s conference. The then-Tertiary Education spokesperson Dr. Paul Hutchison told delegates that National would not support any changes to the law as it stands, effectively vetoing Act’s bill.

His successor, Tertiary Education Minister Anne Tolley, has been more or less silent on the subject, although in March she reiterated that the government “doesn’t see changing the system as a priority”.

On the other hand Associate Minister of Education, Heather Roy, is a vocal advocate of de riguer voluntary membership and a regular guest at ACT On Campus events around the country. Roy even submitted her own bill on the subject in late 2006 and since her receipt of the portfolio both Student Choice and ACT On Campus have called on her to pursue the issue further. Tolley’s other Associate Minister, Wayne Mapp, would appear to have far larger fish to fry with portfolios for defence, research, science and technology. Despite an impressive resume and a lengthy career in academia, the former law professor has demonstrated little interest in the sector in the House apart from a single select committee in 2004. That said, there’s little love lost between Mapp and unions in general, as evidenced by his controversial ’90-day’ bill.

Should Douglas and Roy convince their colleagues to pursue voluntary membership, the unions would have to pin their hopes on the third and final associate minister, Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples. Sharples has never publicly commented on the issue and there’s no hard-and-fast policy on the party site, but I’ll email his office and post an update forthwith. In fact, I may as well email all their offices and see what comes out. Watch this space…

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