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.