Voluntary student unionism a tough one

by Jake Quinn

Putting aside my astonishment that somehow the ghost of too many 1980’s nightmares is back in Parliament, I have bumped a post written in May because it’s actually relevant now.  Roger Douglas’ bill, titled Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill, will soon be before the House and might well be passed.

My position is odd for someone of the left in that I struggle to wholeheartedly support compulsory membership of student unions on the grounds that student politics is largely the playground of fringe nut cases and that a number of students have little desire for the services which that they provide.

This position means I get very dirty looks (bad dirty, not good dirty) from certain friends and colleagues (especially Labour ones) whenever this topic comes up.  Blaise Drinkwater’s comments on the subject are worth a read as are Jackson Wood’s.  Anyway, thoughts on VSM/VSU are bumped and below (from May 2009):

The debate around voluntary student unionism (VSU) is not going to go away and with a National government in power the discussion of it will likely only increase. I have wrestled with the arguments for and against voluntary student unionism for some time. I have struggled to take a side because I respect the important work student unions do yet am not comfortable with people being forced to contribute to what are often very political organisations.

VSU is a policy where membership of and payment to a university student organisation is voluntary. Voluntary student unionism exists in Australia and at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Student Unions can be very useful for organising and advocating on behalf of students, and this is important.  They were particularly important in our parent’s generation at a time when there were plenty of things actually worthy of protest; nuclear free NZ, racist sporting tours, women’s rights, etc.

Today, however, (although this could well change given the direction this government is heading) the most common student protest is the ‘dept monster‘ protest about the increasing national student loan debt balance.  I don’t know what they’re complaining about; a student loan provides near universal access to an all important tertiary education that is hugely subsidised via the taxpayer.

Having representatives of students on academic decision-making boards is also useful (as long as that representative is not an un-shoed raging communist from Wellington’s Workers party) – although I’m sure student unions need to fill this role.

What’s more, we should not forget the fact that student organisations play an important on-campus role, especially around entertainment.  University life would not be the same without a well oiled O-week and the frequent band visits and sausage sizzles that arrive care of university student associations.

Having said all this, there is something to be said for voluntary student unionism.  To often, because of horrendously low voter turn outs of a few percent (or because we don’t give the student body enough credit for having a masochistic sense of humour) it’s the ‘I don’t like wearing shoes because they represent corporations’, Te Aro bypass hating, army helmet wearing, possibly also goth, wingnuts, that end up being elected to represent our nation’s best and brightest.

Perhaps ‘having passed at least half your degree’ should be a pre-req to running as a student politician, hell if its good enough for maintaining access to your loan or allowance it should be a high enough standard for democracy?

If you ever wanted to blame anyone for encouraging the VSU movement, you could start with these guys.  I would point out, however, that that lot are the exception not the rule and MOST student presidents and exec members I’ve met have been hardworking and utterly decent people.

The strongest argument in favour of VSU is probably the civil rights argument.  That requiring membership of, and indeed payment to, a student organisation is a kind of ‘forced unionisation’, which doesn’t sit very well with the principle of ‘freedom of association’. This argument is given merit by the political nature of the nation-wide student associations that comment frequently on political issues and are often quite left-wing in those comments.

Hell, I agree with a lot, if not all, of what NZUSA say, but do I agree that ALL students, including those who are member of the Libertarianz, Act, or the Workers Party should be forced to contribute to this organisation (through fees to its feeder organisations), perhaps not.

In the end, I’m a fence sitter on this one.