ACT on Campus misrepresents its own Top 10

ACT on Campus vice-president Peter McCaffrey recently put out a top 10 list of student unions misrepresenting their members. It’s been briefly mentioned in the Dominion Post, but on closer inspection the list manages to misrepresent more than a few things itself. I thought a good brisk fisking might be in order to set the record straight (as always, any dissent is welcome in the comments). So let’s get started.

10. NZUSA endorsement of Labour in 2008, despite more students voting National than Labour.

Not true – the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations put out a voters’ guide which can be clearly viewed here. Nowhere in the guide does it endorse Labour – even the colour scheme is non-partisan. What it does do is endorse universal student allowances, a policy adopted by Labour and the Greens in the last election, and it would seem this is the source of McCaffrey’s discontent. But there’s nothing illegal, questionable or even unusual about a lobby group endorsing a policy. It’s a very different thing from third-party electioneering  – more Federated Farmers than Exclusive Brethren – and McCaffrey should be smart enough to know this.

9. Student associations claim students oppose Free Trade, depsite [sic] it being supported by all parties in Parliament, except the Greens.

No complaints here, although the most recent example I could find was an NZUSA press release from 2003. It’s hardly a burning issue.

8. AUSA calling Labour’s 2008 budget a “bad joke.”

Rather confusing, since #10 led me to believe that student unions were shamelessly sucking up to Labour. In any case it seems McCaffrey is referring to the opening lines of a press release in May, which began:

Students consider some of the Budget’s changes for tertiary students a bad joke. Auckland students, and their families young and old, are disappointed the Government has failed to show real leadership to address mounting student debt, which hit $10 billion this year.

I’m presuming McCaffrey believes the “students consider” constitutes misrepresentation, but that’s not so much a falsehood as an established news writing convention: “residents say”, “teachers say”, “farmers say”, and so on. To my mind at least, McCaffrey’s assertion comes off as clutching at straws.

7. NZUSA opposing the increases in Tertiary Education funding in National’s 2009 budget.

Again, the opening paragraph of NZUSA’s press release on the Budget:

Students are disappointed today with the Government’s Budget following the announcement that the main funding categories in tertiary education will not be guaranteed to increase in real terms over the coming few years and that $98 million dollars worth of Scholarships will be slashed. While acknowledging a 1.95% (below predicted inflation level) funding adjustment in 2010, students have been left in the dark over tertiary funding beyond next year.

The press release explicitly acknowledges a funding increase, albeit one that it sees as nominal and insufficient. It’s difficult to see where the misrepresentation is here.

6. Student association opposition to university service fee rises, while simultaneously increasing their own fees by 20% or more.

This isn’t misrepresentation so much as mild hypocrisy, but I’ll bite. Student association levies are still considerably lower than most service levies – see for yourself:
Auckland University – $422.40 services levy, no union levy (VSM)
Waikato University – $148 services levy, $95 union levy
Victoria University – $534 services levy, $140 union levy
Otago University – $281 services levy, $175.55 union levy

There are a couple of outliers (such as Unitec, with a $103 union levy compared to a $120 services levy) but the significant issue is how often these levies are increased and by how much. I’m honestly not sure which increases McCaffrey is referring to specifically, but if anyone has more information I’d be glad to see it.

5. Offering a $10,000 reward for the citizens’ arrest of Condoleezza Rice.

This I can agree with: it was a publicity stunt that won AUSA a few headlines and cost them nothing, but it certainly didn’t do anything to advance students’ agenda or dispel the perception of student unions as overrun with self-indulgent lefties.

4. NZUSA funding and endorsement of the Alliance party in the 2002 general election campaign. The Alliance gained fewer than 26,000 votes, despite this ‘endorsement’ by over 250,000 students.

I’m really not sure about this one: I could find only one explicit reference to Alliance in the whole NZUSA database of press releases, which began:

The New Zealand University Students’ Association (NZUSA) is today challenging all other political parties to match the commitment to relieving student debt announced today in the Alliance tertiary education policy.

As we discussed in #10, endorsement of a policy does not equate to endorsement of a party. I found one other mention on Scoop in a press release from July 2002, which noted that the Alliance, the Greens and New Zealand First all offered a universal student allowance. It’s hardly exclusive support, and in fact Alliance got rather pissy in the last election when they did not even merit a mention in NZUSA’s voter guides.

As for the funding allegations, I have no idea what McCaffrey is referring to. If he has more information I’d be keen to hear it, but it seems as if it’s been primarily sourced from a Student Choice press release from 2002, where Clint Heine basically equates compulsory membership with funding of political parties. That’s a pretty misleading thing in itself, I reckon.

3. Refusal by VUWSA to lay a wreath at the 2009 ANZAC Day ceremony, because ‘students didn’t support it’.

Agreed: VUWSA President Jasmine Freemantle claimed they had no “official mandate from students”, but this is a cop-out. As others have said far more eloquently, there are plenty of things VUWSA does that don’t require binding referenda, and it’s fairly self-evident that this was another case of self-indulgent Workers’ Party shenanigans.

2. Burning of the New Zealand flag by the 2008 VUWSA president during a VUWSA meeting.

See above, although technically the flag burning took place in 2009, and noone involved was sitting on the Exec at the time. It’s a little disingenuous for McCaffrey to leave that out.

1. NZUSA opposition to the Education (Freedom of Associaton) Amendment Bill and using compulsorily aquired fees to fund campaign material to oppose the bill.

Lucky last, and difficult to fathom: is NZUSA not supposed to comment on policy? It’s certainly an issue of material interest to students, and whether McCaffrey likes it or not there’s a case to be made for compulsory membership at a pragmatic level. It’s one thing to argue the student unions’ shortcomings, but it’s quite another to fudge the issue in your favour.

2 Comments on “ACT on Campus misrepresents its own Top 10”

  1. peteremcc says:

    First of all, thanks for your comments.

    I think it’s important to point out this was a press release summarising our view. It’s not designed to be a full article with arguments fully fleshed out.

    I’d also like to point out that this is simply a list of misrepresentations by student associations, not our entire argument.

    I am happy to respond to some of your points here though:

    10: We never claimed what they were doing was illegal. In fact the whole point is that it’s completely legal because Parliament passed a special law for them. That is what we oppose. Putting aside the fact that the EFA (and hence the 2008 election laws) doesn’t really make a distinction between advocating a policy and advocating a policy, you’re completely right that it is very different from third party electioneering. All those organisations you list are spending their own money and people can withhold that money if they don’t like what those organisations are saying.

    8: The difference is in who makes the generalisation. When the media do it it’s kind of annoying because it’s obvious that not every farmer or every teacher agrees, but, as you say, it’s not a big deal. However, when a student association does it in a press release they aren’t just reporting on a group’s views, they are claiming to speak on behalf of them, and are legitimately (though not voluntarily) able to do so under the law.

    7: Again, they are misrepresenting the views of students, not the actual facts. Note the sneaky use of ‘funding adjustment’ rather than ‘funding increase’ too.

    5: Just a quick note here. AUSA actually withdrew the offer when they came under pressure from their members. In response, VUWSA offered the same reward and refused to remove it when students complained.

    4: Without my original document in front of me I’m not sure but I think this may be a genuine mistake. I believe it was VUWSA and a few smaller student associations that endorsed and funded the Alliance in 2002, rather than NZUSA. I’ll have to go back and check my document.

    3: Ironically, I agreed with the “no offical mandate” line. That’s one of the exact arguments we use to oppose compulsory membership and shows that student associations actually have no mandate to do ANYTHING under compulsory membership, because they will always misrepresent some of their members.

    1: They can comment on whatever they want, when they’re not using compulsorily acquired fees to do so. Students who support VSM are paying for NZUSA to run a campaign saying that ALL students support CSM. See the misrepresentation there?

  2. peteremcc says:

    between advocating a policy and advocating a party*

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