Veni Vidi VSM: an institutional perspective

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Ten years ago a National government prodded tertiary students to adopt voluntary union membership. Now National is backing a bill to make membership voluntary by law.  Libertarians are for it; lefties are against it – but what does it mean for the institutions that have to live with it?

The student union is a fickle beast – at its best, it can be an institution’s trump card, luring thousands of school-leavers in search of the authentic “student experience”. At its worst, it’s a liability, with stories of impropriety, vandalism, desecration and embezzlement all making headlines in the past year.

Such negative stories are the rationale behind ACT’s voluntary student membership bill, which would limit unions’ ranks only to those who actively opt in. Its supporters say students are compelled to donate to causes they may not agree with, while detractors say the bill is an attempt to cripple resistance to ACT’s laissez-faire plans for the sector.

But while student unions and lobby group Student Choice prepare to  make their case before Parliament’s Education and Science Select Committee, the universities and polytechnics which brook this ideological battle have yet to take an active stance on the bill. Several declined invitation to comment directly for this story: the New Zealand Vice-Chancellors’ Committee, Auckland University’s vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon, Victoria’s Pat Walsh. But those who did agree to interviews insisted that the student union – in their experience, at least – played a pivotal role in the institution’s relationship with its stakeholders, and all agreed that this role would be undermined by the proposed new law.

Originally sponsored by Associate Minister of Education, Heather Roy, the Education (Freedom of  Association) Amendment Bill seeks to reset the laws which govern student union membership. Until the late 1990s, union levies were packaged as part of students’ enrolment fees, with the institution collecting the levies on the union’s behalf. But a bill sponsored by National and supported by ACT saw a series of referenda sweep the country, with student bodies voting on whether to retain compulsory union membership or change to an opt-in basis. Nearly half the country’s polytechnics went voluntary, but only two university unions chose to do so: those of Auckland and Waikato.

Bryan Gould saw the impact firsthand: as Waikato’s then vice-chancellor, he saw the Waikato Student Union shrink from 11,000 members to less than 700 in the space of a year following a decision to go voluntary in 1997. The union had been making regular repayments on a loan from the university to build a student union building, but with its revenue all but gone, it had no choice but to default on remaining payments and sell off what assets it could. It was not just a question of civil liberties, Gould says, but one of property rights and management – and those properties, along with the union’s cash reserves and purchasing power, “went in a trice”.

“Instead of the university being able to say to the union, ‘look, you’re in a very strong position, given that you have a guaranteed income, to invest in the future’ – as they had done on occasions in the past – that kind of deal was then simply closed off.

“The university either had enough money to do it itself, or the students just had to go without the facilities.”

Meanwhile, Gould was also confronted with student representatives he believed were no longer truly representative: “a rather right-wing, fundamentalist Christian group”, as he describes them. The rise of such extreme views in the student union, Gould says, deterred others from involvement, and in 1998 the academic board went so far as to recommend the student president be barred from council unless she could claim at least a one-third constituency. But surely the same could be said of the Young ACT and Communist Workers’ factions at Victoria, despite its compulsory membership?

“All of that is par for the course, I agree, but it takes place in a context in which, if the majority can be bothered to stir themselves, they can moderate all of that,” Gould says.

“A cornerstone of the student choice argument is that with compulsory student unionism, most people don’t bother: they have to pay, but they don’t bother to exercise their rights.

“But in fact that problem just became much worse when only a handful of people were not only bothered to vote, but the only people entitled to vote.”

But much has changed since Gould departed Waikato: the union returned to compulsory membership in 2002 and current vice-chancellor Roy Crawford describes its relationship with the university as “extremely positive”. As a one-stop shop for gauging student opinion, he says, it’s critical:  “If you’re knee-deep in 25 students who wanted to come and see you on a particular issue, with 25 different opinions, it’d be very hard to cope with that.”

According to Crawford, the union’s value isn’t provision of services – for which the university already picks up much of the tab –  but its role as a two-way communication channel. It’s this which he would miss the most, he says, even when the union and varsity are at loggerheads. “When we need to increase fees or something like that, generally speaking our student union is supportive because they understand we’re working within reasonable boundaries.”

But Crawford adds that he has been lucky so far: “We could imagine a situation where particular individuals or a student union body might take a very antagonistic view of management, and that would make life very difficult.”

Unitec chief executive Rick Ede also stresses the union’s importance as a communications tool: the polytechnic nowadays even contracts the student union to run its student satisfaction surveys, which he says is much more effective at generating responses than an in-house operation – and for polytechnics, the need for broad representation is even more vital.

“We have a very diverse student population –  everything from school-leavers through to adult learners – and that makes it a bigger challenge for a students’ association to effectively meet the needs of all the different students within the organisation.

Ede has a lot of faith in the union, with around $900,000 tied up in service contracts with it over the next three years. While he’s unwilling to speak for other institutions, he says the Unitec Students’ Association is “in the upper echelons” of unions in the country: well-managed, well-governed and well-resourced, and he wants it to stay that way.

“Those things don’t necessarily have to connect with compulsory unionism, but having a steady revenue stream and predictability will obviously  enhance their abilities as an organisation… I suspect it could be difficult to have sufficient members under a voluntary scheme to build a critical mass and deliver to all its members.”

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4 Comments on “Veni Vidi VSM: an institutional perspective”

  1. Madeleine says:

    Do you have a source for the comments from Bryan Gould?

    And are you familiar with the concept of balance? You knew where to find the other side of the story, you have left a comment on my blog previously in a blog post on this topic, but no contact…. none at all…. you just published material complete with stereotypical labels, identified us by implication, completely missing our side, not to mention several facts.

    If you are planning on writing any more articles on VSM and Waikato our contact details are on our blog.

    • Hi Madeleine,
      Actually the source is mine – I interviewed him about it last week. Of course you’re welcome to post a rebuttal here in the comments if you have any objections, but as I said in the article the views of student unions/Student Choice are pretty well known. I was purely interested in what the institutions themselves had to say – and those who spoke to me said only good things.

      Although truth be told, I was disappointed that Victoria and Otago declined to comment. Those two probably get the most negative media coverage, so I was naturally curious about whether they felt the flack was more than student unions were worth.

  2. Madeleine says:

    So no need for balance when you already know the views of the other side. Unbelievable!

    You published factually inaccurate claims. There was no default on any loan to repay the building of the student association building, the WSU never had any such loan to pay! The building was built by Campus Services Limited, a joint venture company 50-50 owned by the WSU and the Uni. CSL was responsible for paying the loan, not the students association and it had its own separate levy for income which the Uni continued to charge the students whilst the WSU was voluntary. If it defaulted, which I do not believe it did – certainly never in my time – it had nothing whatsoever to do with the WSU or VSM.

    Had you bothered to interview the other side you might have found this out. (This is but one of Gould’s fabrications/senile moments in the above – others would be false accusations of asset stripping and service collapse. I have a copy of the audited accounts from that time which show this is rubbish – no loan to the Uni anywhere in sight).

    You state that those who spoke to you only said good things – well then what do you call this?

    “Gould was also confronted with student representatives he believed were no longer truly representative: “a rather right-wing, fundamentalist Christian group”, as he describes them. The rise of such extreme views in the student union, Gould says, deterred others from involvement,”

    He is talking about me and the executive I was on. His statements about me and the people I was on exec with are denigrating and derogatory and untrue. If you get a quote like this and you are going to use it this is the sort of thing that screams for a right of reply.

    Further there are factual errors, fundamentalism is a specific type of Christianity; I don’t hold to it, neither did anyone else who was on the WSU with me. Used in the manner he used it, it was simply meant to denigrate and demonise, to label and conjure up stereotypes to avoid having to actually to actually come up with anything concrete. Gould makes no mention of the Mormon president from the following year to us who participated in trying to censor a lecturer who was critical of Mormon views – wonder if that is because this Mormon president campaigned for compulsory membership, a view Gould supported so, of course, was willing to overlook.

    The comments about us putting of participation are also untrue. Following our work on the WSU, and the efforts we put into a membership drive, and out lobbying to get membership packs into every student’s Uni pack – something we had to fight Gould on every step of the way – membership levels picked up to 3000 students as a direct result of our term. Given the campus EFTS at that point were 10,000 that’s not bad at all, especially when you think about how many people actively support their student association on compulsory campuses.

    “..and in 1998 the academic board went so far as to recommend the student president be barred from council unless she could claim at least a one-third constituency.”

    The second the WSU went voluntary Gould and the other pro-compulsory members of the Uni council went to lengths to make like difficult. The move to bar the student president from council was just one example and talk about selective standards – name one student president or student rep on a uni council currently or historically who holds their position with a 1/3 campus majority.

    As to your claim that giving me the opportunity to write my response here will suffice for your lack of balance and integrity are you telling me that you just wrote this piece solely for this blog, that you have not submitted it to any student media? Where do my comments fit in in those publications? Is it up to me to chase every instance of its publication and make sure my side is told? That is crap. If this site was part of the press council you’d be in deep water. Rest assured if that article gets printed in any publication that is I will make a formal complaint.

    If you want an interview, more than happy. If you want audited accounts from when WSU was voluntary, more than happy. Just please stop publishing unsubstantiated, false facts and derogatory comments about other people without getting their response.

  3. peteremcc says:

    I believe this is in Education Review, so some balance would have been nice.

    Also, hilarious quote… this is exactly the point. Of course it’s easier for the VC to only have to deal with one voice. So much more convenient to ignore everyone else’s:

    “But much has changed since Gould departed Waikato: the union returned to compulsory membership in 2002 and current vice-chancellor Roy Crawford describes its relationship with the university as “extremely positive”. As a one-stop shop for gauging student opinion, he says, it’s critical: “If you’re knee-deep in 25 students who wanted to come and see you on a particular issue, with 25 different opinions, it’d be very hard to cope with that.”


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