In praise of VSM


Opponents of Voluntary Student Membership predicted the sky would fall if people weren’t compelled to join students unions.

It hasn’t and here’s proof of its benefits.

It enabled some Young Nats to choose to join the Otago University Students Association and then use the OUSA van to get to the National Party’s Mainland conference in Hanmer at the weekend.

Like a boss

They’re pictured here with two of the MPs who voted in favour of VSM – Prime Minister John Key and Waitaki MP Jacqui Dean.

This isn’t how it was supposed to work


Voluntary student membership was primarily about freedom of association.

A bonus should have been that it would force student unions to become more efficient and responsive to their members.

It wasn’t supposed to mean business as usual with universities charging students more which they then pass on to the unions:

The Southern Region Young Nationals today expressed disappointment with the student services agreement reached between the University of Otago and the Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA) which has led to a substantial increase in fees students pay for the provision of non-academic services.

The agreement comes after OUSA responded to voluntary student membership legislation by recommending students set their membership levy at $0, leaving them reliant on the University’s compulsory student services fees to fund their operations.

The University Council voted to increase student services fees by 16%, from $580 to $672. This included a 12% increase from $190 to $213 per student in fees charged for OUSA services, despite the fact that the services remain unchanged in 2012.

Southern Region Chair, Callum Fredric, believes that the agreement will negatively impact Otago students.

“Students are now being charged significantly more in 2012 for what is essentially the same thing that they were being charged for in 2011”, Fredric stated. “There appears to be no reasonable justification for such a large increase in student fees, which only adds to the growing mountain of student debt without providing any tangible increase in services.”

Recently the Minister for Tertiary Education, Steven Joyce, released a Ministerial Direction on Compulsory Student Service Fees which aimed to ensure accountability in the use of compulsory fees for student services. Fredric says that the Minister should be taking a close look at the reasons for such a fee increase at Otago.

“I think that whenever there is a substantial increase in fees that appears to be unaccounted for, there is cause for the Government to ask questions about whether this is an appropriate use of students’, and ultimately, taxpayers’money.”

Fredric rejects the assertion that this increase is due to the abolition of compulsory student unionism. He says that as the service provider, OUSA ultimately sets the minimum level at which they charge students to provide their services.

“At the end of the day OUSA has the ability to charge as little as they wish to provide these services to students. In doing the complete opposite and actually increasing the amount students pay to OUSA by over 10%, they have shown that their previous commitments to a more fiscally responsible and sustainable organisation were nothing more than empty rhetoric. Sadly it is the students who will pay for OUSA’s decision to continue their history of levy and spend.”

The union should have used the abolition of compulsory membership to examine what it did, how it did it, how much support it had from students to do it and how much they were willing to pay for it.

Instead it will be able to carry on as usual and students will have no more control over the costs than they did when membership was compulsory.

Another day, another filibuster


It’s Member’s Day at parliament but nothing much will happen again as Labour continues filibustering to prevent the passing of legislation enabling voluntary student union membership.

National’s Dunedin MP Michael Woodhouse put the arguments for choice:

 I have a high regard for the Otago University Students Association (OUSA) and Otago Polytechnic Students Association (OPSA). I think they generally provide a good service to students, represent value for money, and if I was an undergraduate student again I would probably join. But that would be my choice. I see no rationale for being compelled to join, and support the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill, a member’s bill presently being debated in Parliament.

I find the rhetoric by opponents of voluntary student membership (VSM) somewhat confusing – almost doublespeak. Opponents of VSM claim that choice would devastate services, silence students and actually curtail freedom. Indeed, OUSA president Logan Edgar has spent two nights in a cage this week to make this very unusual point. VSM opponents also claim that compulsory membership gives students more freedom. It simply does not make sense. We’ve long since dispensed with the idea of compulsory membership of unions and I fail to see why student unions should be treated any differently.

 The question not answered by anti-VSM proponents is this: if student associations are so important, if they represent such good value for money, why the morbid fear that students will take flight when association membership is made optional? This labels students, our brightest young and our future leaders, as lacking the simple skill of deciding for themselves whether joining an organisation is appropriate or valuable to them.  And if they do, associations should be more focused on why it is that students see such low value in membership than on maintaining compulsion.

One reason put up for the possible reduction in membership under VSM is of financial constraints – that students, otherwise keen to join, may not be able to afford the very reasonable OUSA or OPSA subscription. Readers should consider this in the context of the very high spending behaviour of students during Orientation Week on events costing much more than the subscription to OUSA. Another argument against VSM is that organisations such as OUSA and OPSA would need to spend a disproportionate amount of their resources on marketing. This would be quite unnecessary. The best advertisement for membership of student associations is satisfied students. But if associations are worried that first-year students in particular do not understand the value of membership, all they need to do is continue to restrict attendance at orientation events to OUSA and OPSA members. Problem solved.

Some VSM opponents argue that student membership fees should be likened to rates paid by local ratepayers. I don’t agree with the comparison. Ratings authorities are subject to a number of constraining laws relating to consultation, planning and oversight that are not imposed on student associations. Further, student associations are not apolitical. They have clear political links. Many students compelled to be members are thoroughly sick and tired of some associations’ behaviours, for example:

• The burning of the New Zealand flag by a VUWSA executive member in the grounds of Victoria University’s Law Faculty on Anzac Day in 2007.

• The expenditure of $40,000 by an OUSA staffer to spend a year travelling the world researching student drinking habits – then delivering a four and a half page report on her findings.

• Several high-profile financial misappropriations by student association executive members.

Students associations claim to provide an important advocacy service by lobbying to the university council and the Government on issues such as interest-free loans, the fee maxima, and universal student allowances.  They do, but the problem with political advocacy of (in OUSA’s case) 22,000 students is that it is just not possible to represent the common political interest of such a large and diverse membership. A significant cohort of students with differing views to the executive is disenfranchised by the position taken. That is not acceptable in an organisation where membership is compulsory.

At the end of the day this comes down to a simple principle of freedom of association. No New Zealander should be compelled to join an organisation of this nature against their will. On this principle alone, I support the change to voluntary student membership.

Labour sees student unions as a training ground for future MPs and supporters.

This is obviously blinding them to the stupidity of their filibustering.

All that does is show that they think compelling students to join a union is the most important thing they can do in parliament.

Filibustering to preserve foolishness


Is the bill allowing students freedom of association really the most important piece of legislation for Labour?

It must be when their serial filibustering is wasting $453,000 for every hour parliament sits.

Meanwhile the Otago University Students Association shows why voluntary membership should be permitted.

Among the issues its memberswere asked to consider in a recent referendum was:

Should OUSA adopt the following as external policy: ‘That OUSA opposes factory farming and the sale of factory farmed products (including eggs, chicken and pig products) and therefore requests that all campus food outlets use free-range products?’

Yes 1616 (74%)
No 573 (26%)
Total votes 2189
Total present 2606 (quorum met)

Otago has about 20,000 students. Only a little more than 10% of them bothered to vote and now they’ve been lumbered with this policy which has nothing to do with education or student welfare which ought to be OUSA’s core business.

It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with animal welfare either, it’s a policy based more on emotion than reason.

If it was implemented it would add significant costs to the food available on campus which is something the OUSA would be concerned about if it cared more for its members than political crusades.

Young Nats concerned over legitimacy of OUSA


A very low turnout in recent by-elections for the Otago University Students Association has led Southern Young Nationals to question OUSA’s legitimacy:

The Postgraduate Representative, Thomas Koentges, received a total of 83 votes, and the International Student Officer, Art Kojarunchitt received 64 votes. 166 people voted in the by-election for the post graduate officer, and 102 voted in the by-election for the international student officer.

“This number is not at all representative of either the postgraduate or international communities. We are concerned at the legitimacy these two have in making decisions about such a large amount of capital students pay into each year” Liam Kernaghan, Chairman of the Southern Young Nationals said.

“But this goes further than these two elections. OUSA elections, like every other student association around the country, are notoriously unrepresentative of the student body, and for the power which is vested into the elected officials. We don’t think it’s fair the 20,000 students who pay levies to OUSA should be bound to decisions made by less than 0.005% of the campus population.”

“Democracy only works when everyone turns up. When 100 people turn out to vote, you really have to consider the benefits of a ‘democratically elected’ compulsory union.”

If this is how few people bother to vote when membership is compulsory OUSA will have to work to show it is relevant to students once they can choose to join the association or not.

By-elections almost always attract fewer voters but the turnout at annual elections is low too.

Currently less than 10% of the entire student populace votes at the major elections every year. This says to me either the students don’t care for the OUSA, and in which case the OUSA should recognise the inherent rights to freedom of association, or the students don’t understand what the OUSA provides, and therefore should make a better effort to consolidate student support”.

The Southern Young Nationals are not “against the OUSA. We think they provide some fantastic services which benefit the vast majority of students. We’d just like students to have the choice to be part of it, rather than be made to”

“We strongly encourage OUSA to take proactive steps to building a fantastic organisation that can both better represent the student voice, and that can stand up in a voluntary environment.

OUSA does provide a good range of services for students, it is also has some good investments which reduces its dependence on student fees. But it has a problem if only 10% of its members are sufficiently informed or interested in the association to vote.

VSM will enable student associations to prove their worth


The news that a select committee has recommended that student associations be voluntary has not surprisingly been greeted with dismay by association members.

“They have not listened to the voice of students. Overwhelmingly, students did not want it,” Otago Polytechnic Students Association (OPSA) Meegan Cloughley said.

Otago University Students Association (OUSA) Harriet Geoghegan said for the opposition to changes “to be ignored is quite astounding”. . .

. . .  New Zealand University Students’ Association co-president David Do said evidence in Australia and New Zealand showed the Bill would destroy student representation and welfare provision, and put student-owned services such as Student Job Search at risk.

Student life, events such as Orientation, clubs, and sports would be at risk, and institutions and Government would face extra new costs, he said.

The student association I know most about is OUSA which does provide a lot of services for its members. It’s also one of the most financially sound and among its assets is the UBS, one of the country’s best bookshops.

If that or any other assets OUSA owns and services it provides are under threat from voluntary membership the association needs to ask if it really give students the benefits, and value for money, it says it does.

If students overwhelmingly don’t want voluntary membership it should bring little change because they’ll all sign up anyway. If they don’t, the associations will have to earn the support which they now get through compulsion.

Instead of seeing VSM as a threat to their viability, student associations should regard it as an opportunity to prove their worth.

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