Under 300 students in Massey at Wellington Students’ Association (MAWSA) voted in their student election last year. Emma Pearce investigates why voting turnout and student engagement with MAWSA is so low.
I walk into the MAWSA staff room and am immediately overwhelmed. Props, papers, colorful signs, fake foliage, and golden streamers don the room. It’s like a collation of Pinterest boards shoved into one space. Looking at the finer details, each employee has their own space decorated to their liking. Standing desks, wooden ornaments, and bikes are scattered around the place but it’s a fluorescent pink flamingo light that catches my eye. The space around the flamingo is the definition of organised chaos. Files shoved into every available space with papers spewing out everywhere. This is the desk of MAWSA manager Sarah Grant-Wang.
She bundles into the open office with a stack of paper in hand. “I’ll be with you in just a second my love,” she says. After some time, she takes me into a private room for her interview.
It’s the height of election season at MAWSA, where students campaign against one-another to secure a position on the Student Executive. But with voter turnout so low in previous years – just under 10 per cent of eligible students voted in 2016 – you’ve got to wonder if students care to engage with the students’ association at all.
Sarah tells me how much has changed in the two years she’s been working within MAWSA. The office space once used by the association was closed off to students by walls and doors, and Sarah says this made the association harder to reach for every day students. She says this is why she thinks voter turnout has been so low in the past. “In my first year at MAWSA in 2015 I didn’t even know the student election was happening. This is something I have always wanted to try and improve on because I wanted to see the wider student body really engage with their student association.”
Sarah says once the MAWSA offices were re-arranged to become a more collaborative space, she noticed more student engagement.
“It’s fantastic to now see dozens of students working each day with the MAWSA and Massey teams on projects and initiatives designed for students.”
Checking her phone every now and again, I can see a long list of messages appear on the screen in the short time we’ve spent together. She’s one busy person that’s for sure. She’s proud of what she’s achieved in her short time as the MAWSA manager and for what’s to come. “Student engagement or participation can be improved all the time, I know for MAWSA, as a team, we are trying to improve our processes and systems and how we engage with students all the time.”
When asked about low voting in the MAWSA elections, she put it down to how much students have going on.
“Students are busy, they’re busy with their own lives”.
Felix Desmarais, a grad student currently studying at Massey’s Wellington campus, says it is also due to a lack of awareness on campus.
“I’m not an expert on why student stakeholder engagement is so low but I think it’s got a lot to do with students’ not being aware of students’ associations.”
I interview Desmarais on the red couch in the Massive Magazine office. Though he hasn’t spent a lot of time here, he seems at home amongst the chaos of papers and post-it notes that scour every inch of the magazine’s headquarters.
Having been a part of the Victoria University Wellington Students’ Association whilst studying at Victoria University, being both a campaign coordinator and the Vice President of Education; Desmarais has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to students’ associations.
“I probably know more so than the average student because of my past with associations, so I understand that students’ associations provide services and provide representation and clubs and societies as well, but I sort of see that as a service.”
When asked if he will vote in the upcoming MAWSA elections, Desmarais pauses for a moment to search for the right words.
“I was kind of thinking about voting but I hadn’t decided… I value the students’ association but just the way I see it now, it feels like the association is mostly a services sort of outlet so I feel like the services are going to be the same no matter who the executive is.”
I find it surprising that Desmarais is of that opinion when he was so involved with VUWSA in the past.
As Desmarais has been a Massey student for over a year, I set out to find someone who’s been at the Wellington campus for a little longer. I managed to find Alex Bartolome, a third year design student who’s life revolves around going to Massey and leaving as soon as class finishes. He sits cross-legged on his couch, fidgeting with a pen while we chat. He’s heard of MAWSA but has no idea what the association does.
“Personally, I’ve not had any interactions with them, I guess they do a lot of paperwork.”
It’s interesting that after three years on campus a student isn’t aware of the events and clubs put on by MAWSA. I then asked him if he knew about the upcoming MAWSA election.
“Now that, I’ve heard of. There’s an obscene amount of posters around.”
It seems like MAWSA’s communication with students is there, just not in the ways they’d like.
“I don’t know if I’ll vote though,” Alex took a pause, only to continue, “I mean, I don’t even know how to vote.”
With those elected to the executive holding a huge amount of power, responsibility, and decision making for the student body, you’d think more students would be invested in the elections and student politics.
Maybe students don’t care because it isn’t advertised to them enough. Or maybe they’re too busy to care.