Ding dong, the witch is dead…Heather Roy, the architect of Voluntary Student Membership left Parliament as the ACT Party disintegrated at the last election and she and her other colleagues rabidly turned on each other as the public decided it had had enough. But Roy’s political stain will take some time to get out of the sheets, particularly in terms of the drastic effect it will have on Students’ Associations, including your own ASA.

Roy’s argument was that students’ associations were basically the equivalent of Goldman Sacks or Lehman Brothers – they couldn’t be trusted with money (or maybe it’s a bit more like Donna Awatere?).  They were led by rabid left-wingers – proto-unionists in drag. Her solution – a golden bullet – remove compulsory funding – starve them out – place the power back in the hands of the institution – after all; tertiary education is a ‘paragon of virtue’ that has the best interests of its ‘clients’ at heart. Please – really?

ASA is a service organisation. It employs people to provide services mainly part-timers, more often than not, students. ‘Restructuring’ is a euphemism for ‘budget cuts and redundancies’. Political representation – the anathema that Roy and National rallied against during the sub-committee hearings – can continue on a completely volunteer, if less effective, basis. It is happening already with ASA reporting that close to 1,000 students in two weeks have become  members – although importantly at no cost to them. But all the other service areas – all the things that students developed over time to support students, and funded collectively because individualism does not work, need people. No money – no people – no service.

So how is restructuring going? Events people – gone (hope you enjoyed Orientation; it was down-sized and was probably the last), Media people – fingers crossed (Satellite is now part of a collectively grant-funded experiment), Administration people – next to feel the axe (who needs all the boring accounting and management stuff that allows everyone else to do their jobs?) These people were completely absent from Roy’s argument. Talking about the effect of their politics on people is not what ACT is about. Individualism is what ACT is about. ‘Social structures and collectivism’ equate to ‘communism and socialism’ and therefore are ‘bad’. Reductio ad adsurdum.

But Roy was only the delivery mechanism. It was Steven Joyce, the Minister of Tertiary Education – who is ironically coming to open the new Student Amenities Centre – who fired the gun. This is a man who once pulled down a pay-cheque from a students’ association. Joyce amended, under parliamentary urgency, the ability for anyone to collect compulsory fees unless they are on his list of proscriptive service areas. Events aren’t one of them; neither are cultural groups. Students can fund everything else through user pays.

Students’ Associations naively seemed to believe this meant their own tertiary institutions would finally have some level of ‘transparency and accountability’ – National’s risible new catch-phrase. But no – it meant that the only avenue left to ASA and its counterparts was to go cap-in-hand to the powers that be in the hope of getting funding to survive. Where is this money coming from – you guessed it – me, you, us – the money–go-round begins.

Non-academic compulsory fees rose by 60 percent between 2011 and 2012. Did any of us realise? Did anyone sit us down and explain why? Did any of the ACT supporters who thought they would be saving on paying Students’ Association fees realise that the money would end up being collected by the institutions anyway? Now even they have no say in how it gets spent.

Where is all that money going? No one seems to know or say. Not all to ASA or any of its sister associations, who will likely struggle on what they are lucky to receive. They appear to have no bargaining chips – it’s all down to ‘institutional goodwill’. Already there are plans afoot to charge occupancy in the Student Amenities Centre. If that happens – ASA may be operating out of a tent in the middle of ‘Student Central’ by 2013 while students wonder what part of the new building belongs to them – answer – all and none.

Students have been paying $180 each in the form of a building levy) ever since the building broke ground. It seems reasonable that you have a space (other than the Student Common Room) in this building – but it may all get nibbled away. Roy and Joyce have effectively stripped the funding off associations, provided less service, provided less accountability – all under the guise of ‘freedom’. You are now all free to watch the death throes of your association-led services; Massey is waiting in the wings to pick up what it values – and, judging by the response so far, that isn’t a lot.

The current contract offers a sixth of the operating income restricted to Advocacy, Welfare and Clubs. Other associations are not so lucky, Lincoln University Students’ Association didn’t receive anything from their institution; so bye bye LUSA. All this will be part of an annual contract and the indication is that, when the paperwork is finally done and dusted, ASA will probably get even less in future periods. Please Sir – can I have some less? In the meantime, the institution is rushing around like headless chickens attempting to put its own house in order to meet the same compliance regimes, while ironically the annually audited students’ associations have much better, more ‘transparent and accountable’ practices. Talk about sticking it to the little guy.

This opinion piece is fast becoming a call to arms, so what can we do about it? We could become fully paid members and gain a ‘voice’ or even just just all the ‘free’ stuff in the Orientation goodie bags.. While that seems like association speak for more of your hard earned money there is another good way to stick it to the man and even profit a little.  It is a little known fact that students can apply for exemption from the Student Services Levy you have already paid, yes I know it seems radical, but there it is on the Massey FAQ section of the fees website. So why not apply for exemption and give part of that back to the struggling student associations. They need about $100 per student (there would even be some change left) to see them able to continue to employ the people they need to serve you and, as members – you get to choose what it gets spent on. If you think it is important to maintain a strong and able student voice. If you would like to retain the power to make decisions about what you think is best – as opposed to being told what you are simply going to pay for – then become a member. You can even put it on your course related costs and (shortly) claim it as a charitable donation.

So when ASA comes door-knocking in the next couple of weeks – think about whether you can afford $50 a semester and if that is worth what you may lose. Or keep it. But once ASA’s gone it probably won’t be back.

What has ASA done for me lately?

For everyone who asks the perennial question about why it is important to join a students’ association; here’s a list of some of our achievements working for you since we arrived…

  • Hardship fund – supported students in need since 1993
  • Club Grants – established policy to administer and gave away thousands to help student clubs
  • Chaplaincy – supported it financial for two years while Massey dithered over funding
  • Childcare – annual donations towards computers, play areas, ovens, and Christmas parties
  • Student Amenities Centre – began asking 1996, part of the steering group 2003 – 2011
  • Bar – we ran the only bar on campus 1993 – 2009 and supported the Ferguson Bar when it was floated
  • Campus Events – funded them, ran them, delivered Balls, Champagne breakfasts, Winter Festivals Wednesday lunchtimes and many, many more.
  • Equipment – purchased BBQ tables and BBQs for use around the entire campus
  • Recreation Centre – supported the levy
  • Car-parking – kept it free
  • Supported teams to University Games – every year since 1996
  • Orientation, Winter Festival – every year since 1995
  • Student newspapers – Satellite 1995 – 2011, Massive 2012…
  • Advocacy – employed a professional advocate to assist in academic grievances, hardship, and support
  • Class Rep programme – established in 2005
  • Lecturer of the Year – began in 2005 – 2011
  • Grievance Review – fought to get the Academic Grievance procedures overhauled – 2005 -2012
  • Rideshare – established in 2004, designed, managed and administered
  • Travel Plan – part of transport surveys, management plans, steering group
  • University Council and Committees – provided student representation to operational, strategic and management committees, academic audits, campus development strategies, 1993 – 2012 because sometimes the university staff don’t remember what it’s like to be a student
  • Provided the only place to purchase tertiary discount bus tickets on campus, along with continual advocacy to Auckland Transport about student travel needs. This is a service the University wasn’t interested in ensuring students had – if ASA didn’t foot the bill to have a these sales over the last 15 years – you would have to go into Auckland to purchase discount tickets.
  • Some of those little things, like ensuring there have been microwaves available for students, advocating for prayer spaces and clubs spaces and study spaces, going to meetings about how services are offered, trying to ensure fees are as low as possible, and
  • Getting Albany students’ voices heard in Palmerston North; we haven’t won every battle, but ASA has made the University stop and think about this campus and the needs of its students.

Lots of things the university would have dropped or never started because they didn’t see it as their role or it was economic enough ASA advocated for, offered, and administered because sometimes it’s those things that are the difference between making it to University or not. But none of it comes free.

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