The New Zealand University Students Association has come under fire after taking a political stance on the sale of state assets without proper consultation of its members, the students they claim to represent.
Though NZUSA usually speaks out on student-related political issues, such as student loan schemes, course-related costs, and rising student debt, the decision to speak on asset sales, a non-specific student issue, has caused controversy.
The criticism comes after NZUSA Vice-President Arena Williams spoke at the citizens initiated referendum campaign opposed to the sale of state assets, saying “We know that lots of students are opposed to the sale of state assets”, without finding out if lots of students were in favour of the sale of assets.
The claim appears to be misleading, especially considering that in response to an email sent out days beforehand asking presidents to encourage students to attend the campaign launch, few bothered to attend. The email was also the first time some NZUSA members had heard of the stance being taken by the association.
That stance has been well documented on media websites by way of a press release, also sent to MASSIVE, headlined ‘Students enthusiastic supporters of Keep our Assets Campaign’. Banking on this support was Labour Party Leader David Shearer, who said at the launch that he was proud to work with the community groups leading the fight against asset sales, including Grey Power and NZUSA.
Some student presidents, who make up the governing body of NZUSA, can’t recall the issue of asset sales being discussed at the University Sector Council (NZUSA’s board). This calls into question NZUSA’s role as the voice of students, and the appropriateness of an association taking a political stance on behalf of all students when not all would agree with it. How appropriate is it for an organisation that represents all students to take a narrow political stance?
The President of Massey University of Wellington Students Association (Mawsa), Ben Thorpe, is very vocal on this point.
He says that for the most part, Massey campuses have been free of political influence, even within the associations themselves.
“Mawsa stays out of politics because, quite frankly, students have different opinions about political issues. NZUSA should encourage students to participate in wider political issues, but not dictate that stance.”
Other Massey presidents have mixed ideas about NZUSA’s role in this issue.
The President of Massey University Students Association, Palmerston North (Musa), Alex Jones, says NZUSA should stick to advocating on issues that directly affect students as “it’s up to students themselves to decide if asset sales are good or not”.
But the President of Auckland Students Association , Albany (ASA), Stephan van Heerden believes NZUSA is in a position to encourage students to think about political issues.
“People think it’s interesting that I am a National voter, and a student president, but part of being in an union is that you let that union speak on your behalf. While you may not agree with the view, you can speak out against it. It’s part of being in a fair and democratic society.”
Ben Thorpe believes the issue is a result of the restructure NZUSA is currently experiencing and is an oversight.
“This isn’t an indication that the restructure had failed, but that issues have come out of it and need to be addressed. I am confident that the lessons learned from this example can be used to improve the NZUSA structure overall.”
NZUSA’s Arena Williams believes it was right for NZUSA to get involved in the asset sales issue. She says students are not taking part in elections actively and are instead voting with their feet and eventually leaving New Zealand.
“The role of student associations is to provide students with a voice both on and off campus. Asset sales are an issue that will affect students as the future leaders of the country. It is not as issue that lasts three years, but 50 years.”
Ultimately, it will be up to students to decide if NZUSA’s involvement in this issue was correct and can be brought up with students associations at AGMs.