Veni Vidi VSM: an institutional perspectivePosted: September 27, 2009
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.”