Voluntary Student Unions

So, Sir Roger Douglas’ Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill has been pulled from the hat, and we can look forward to months of debate drawn along traditional left/right lines.

It goes like this. Most of the universities in New Zealand have compulsory SA (student association) membership. If you’re studying there, you’re a member. Several years ago, a large VSM movement at Auckland Uni switched things there from compulsory to voluntary membership, making AUSA the only voluntary SA in the country.

Those in favour of compulsory student membership tend to wisely dislike the odious term “compulsory”, preferring “universal”. They see studying at a university as being a member of a community, with interests common to all students by virtue of them being students. And so the SA speaks with the voice of those students in lobbying in their collective interests. To the “universalists”, the levies charged to members are akin to council levies or state taxes: there’s taxation, but it’s justified because there’s representation – annual elections in accordance with a written constitution.

A cynic might suggest that those in favour of compulsory student membership are overwhelmingly politically left-wing and active in the student associations themselves, concerned more with the size of the resources at their disposal in furthering their political agendas than with being genuinely representative of the student body.

Those in favour of voluntary student membership tend to see studying at university as a contract with that university, with student associations playing a separate role primarily as a service provider. The SAs put on events, provide advocacy in dealing with the university, organise clubs and own businesses, and even lobbying is seen as a service for which one is paying. Being forced to be a member means being forced to pay for services one may not particularly want. They are also fond of invoking “freedom of association”, claiming that it is immoral for anyone to be forced to be a member of any given group.

A cynic might suggest that VSMers are predominantly politically right-wing and almost always opposed to the left-wing agendas that SA politicians tend to favour. Thus they could see VSM as an effective tool for undermining the resources available to young left-wing politicians – a practical matter, rather than any particular devotion to freedom of association.

They’d be right about the effectiveness of VSM as an assault on student associations. AUSA now goes through a yearly ordeal of spending over $10,000 asking students to essentially tick a box that says they want to join AUSA. Often they assume they’re already members. The radically reduced membership means radically reduced funding, further diminished by the cost of the membership drive.

I’m ideologically inclined to favour VSM, myself, as I’m inclined to favour voluntariness over compulsion in all things. A simple solution that may show up any hidden motivations in the VSM movement would be the suggestion of an opt-out compromise: every student is a member by default, but can opt out at any time. This makes sense in the context of Auckland University, where all students pay a student-services levy anyway, and a portion is allocated to AUSA under the democratic control of the member students.

Problems arise, however, when you can opt out in a situation where deciding not to join means getting a cash-in-hand rebate. That’s a strong incentive, especially for students, to opt out, and student associations would have an even harder time than AUSA does in gaining/retaining members. SA fees would have to be payable by student loan, making it a negligible increase in student-loan debt.

In cases where there is an incentive to opt out (probably cash) or a disincentive to join (having to pay personally rather than lumped with other fees), the student associations would have to be more clear about what it is that they provide their members. Naturally, this tends to place them within the context of a service provider, advertising the benefits of their membership in a manner akin to a gym or the AA (the car one, not the drinking one).

One obvious way to do this would be to withdraw the support they’ve previously offered all students, reducing their services to their constituency alone. Not a member of AUSA? You pay more for drinks at Shadows, you don’t get help when lecturers try to fuck you over, you get barred from free AUSA events, have to pay more for entry to other AUSA events… and you’re just plain not allowed to read two or three Craccums each year.

That would put student associations in the uncomfortable position of refusing to help non-member students, and as I have said before elsewhere, I have trouble imagining any student politician I know saying no to a request for help.

But I digress.

Ideally, I’d like to see student associations completely voluntary. I think it is immoral for anyone to be forced to be a part of anything. If I didn’t agree to it, I shouldn’t be subject to it. Liberty over security! Liberty over efficiency! Liberty over bureaucracy!

Ahem.

I say things like this, and many pro-VSM people agree heartily. And I say, “So! You agree!” And they say, “Yes!”

And I say, “No one should be forced to be a member of anything!”

And they say, “Right on!”

And I say, “So you’re with me on voluntary state membership?”

And they say, “Yea– Wait, what?”

See, it’s interesting where the limits of these principles are found. When challenged to explain their support for compulsory membership in the New Zealand state, being subject to its laws, being forced to pay its taxes, being lumped with its voice and its “culture”, the average pro-VSMer sounds remarkably like a pro-CSMer. “Well, whether or not you like it, you’re a New Zealander. If it wasn’t for the government, things would be far worse for everyone, including you. Taxes are the price you pay for the maintenance of a necessary institution (though they should be far lower).” And so on.

“Well, you could move to another country.” Oh? Couldn’t you study at another university?

“Competition between alternative student associations would incentivise quality service.” Yes? Would the same not be true of competition between alternative governments?

“But we get representation with our taxation.” And you get representation with your SA levies.

Frankly, I’m the cynic mentioned above. I suspect the motivations of both sides of the debate, and have trouble being convinced that those so interested in the matter really care about the things about which they profess to care. The centre-left and the centre-right seem to make battles of these small issues, each hoping to gain a small amount of ground and a large symbolic victory. That said, I have met proponents of each whom I believe to be principled in their motivations to argue their piece.

4 Comments Voluntary Student Unions

  1. Will

    Ryan, AUSA only nominally has VSM. As you know, the Uni takes the money from students anyway, and only passes on that money to AUSA should the student join. So while you don't have to be a member, you still have to pay (someone) the same amount of money.

    Douglas' bill would also get rid of this. See the proposed s 229(1)(b) – "No person, including any tertiary institution… may require any student… to pay any money … to any other person in lieu of such fees"

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  2. peteremcc

    All excellent points.

    I have no problem with a university forcing its students to join the affiliated students association, but only if that university is fully private.

    If the government is funding the university, then it should be completely voluntary. There is no real competition between universities because the're all government funded.

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  3. Ryan Sproull

    Yeah, Will, I should have been more clear about what I meant by the context of Auckland Uni. Any tales the old VSM movement told of not having money taken from you clearly are not true in the current situation with AUSA, where your choice is not between paying and not paying, but rather between having a democratic say over how your levy is used (AUSA membership) and not having a say.

    In other words, VSM has been implemented in the silliest possible way at Auckland University.

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  4. Ryan Sproull

    That's as I understand things with AUSA. There are more knowledgeable people out there who can probably correct me. I'm told that the levy money allocated to AUSA are for very specific things, not just vague "AUSA money". AUSA has income from some of its holdings too, depending on how business is going. Craccum, for instance, is mainly funded by selling advertising, which affords it some helpful independence from the student association it should be free to criticise.

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