So VSM shrugged: Voluntary Student Membership six years on

In September 2011, the ACT Party’s Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment bill passed into law. The  law changed student association membership to a voluntary model. While supporters of the bill claimed it was a human rights issue, opponents claimed it would gut students’ associations and that it was a cynical ideological move to undermine the student voice. Felix Desmarais asks, six years on, what has voluntary student membership changed and how does it affect students today?

At 34, MP for Epsom and Leader of the ACT Party David Seymour is only five years older than me. While sat in his office for half an hour, I compared myself to him. Why am I not a member of Cabinet yet? Probably because I don’t want to be, which is a pretty good reason – but I do get the distinct impression that Seymour is an incredibly driven individual.

Behind his desk sits a relatively modest framed photo of a yellow car. His press secretary Louis paces the hallway outside on calls while I wait. Louis is insistent on referring to his boss as Mr Seymour, while I self-consciously refer to him as David. They’ve known each other for years. I’ve never met Seymour. I ask Louis about the photograph. It’s a Lotus Mr Seymour built himself when he was 14. Why didn’t I build a car when I was 14? I figure, again, because I didn’t want to.

The view from Seymour’s office sweeps across Pipitea, swooping down over the law school, across a glittering Wellington harbour and across to the Rimutaka ranges. A fresh white shirt drapes over a hotel style lounge suite, which itself is orientated toward a large television with Sky. There’s a bottle opener cast aside on the wall cabinet adjacent. I wonder if he comes here with mates to watch All Blacks games. I would – and I don’t even like rugby.

I’m browsing the bookshelf when David arrives. A dogeared Lecretia’s Wish, Tax and Fairness and, I’m mildly surprised, The Lorax.

He doesn’t have an easy smile, it’s hard earned, like his tax dollars. I thanked him for seeing me so close to the election – he must be busy. He shrugs. “Servant of the people and all that.”

I was the Vice President of Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA) when the ACT Party’s Education (Freedom of Association) bill was drawn from the ballot in 2009. It was a pretty long time ago now, almost a third of my life. It feels like a distant memory, a different me.  I don’t mention my past to Seymour, which I makes me feel like I’m a spy, which is accurate, since that kind of is what a journalist is.

But back in a previous life, I was a student politician in the middle of one of the most turbulent times in the student movement – an historic moment as it turned out. The VSM bill passed into law, changing student association membership from a ‘compulsory’ / ‘universal’ (depending on who you’re talking to) model to a voluntary one – voluntary student membership, or VSM.

A quick 101: pre-VSM, the tertiary institution you enrolled in would automatically take a students’ association levy right off your student loan tab. All students were automatically members of the students’ association and entitled to use of all services, representation, clubs, activities and advocacy on offer. Everyone was able to vote in elections for the executive and student president.

You could opt out, but it was a bit of a rigmarole because you had to claim conscientious objection and your levy wasn’t given back to you, but instead donated to a charity of your choice. After that, you could usually still receive all the benefits of being a member anyway. There were some variations in this across the students associations, but this is more or less how VUWSA worked in 2009, when I was on the Executive.

When the VSM bill was drawn from the ballot in 2009 a lot of people in student association circles thought that, if passed, the bill would mean the end of student services and representation on campuses. Opponents claimed that it was a cynical attack on grassroots student activism, which was often typified by left wing values – you know, the ones you can’t go shopping with.

Sophia Blair was Co-President of NZUSA (the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations) in 2009, along with Jordan King. NZUSA led the opposition campaign against the bill. She remembers a flustered NZUSA receptionist rushing her and Jordan as they exited the lift to the office.

“[She] was like, “Oh my god guys, someone, a guy called Grant Robertson called, he’s just said VSM’s been pulled from the ballot,” and we were like “oh my god.” I remember Jordan slamming the door to his office…We were kind of like, right, we’re gonna set up a war room (laughs)

Both Sophia and Jordan were members of Labour. She thinks it’s possible that an emphasis on ideology rather than the more apolitical ‘values’ probably made students associations a target.

“We were probably too overtly left wing when we didn’t need to be.”

Was the student movement a vehicle for the Labour Party?

“Yeah, it was, I mean, there was always a push on Princes Street [Central Auckland Labour branch] to get people onto the exec because I guess, Labour values were student values.”

Despite these weaknesses, Blair reckons a compromise between the awkward opt-out compulsory and voluntary opt-in models could have been achieved, but there was no political will. She says she recently found out that National had committed to supporting its coalition partner ACT to make VSM a reality, making NZUSA’s efforts to lobby the government futile.

“National were always going to vote for it. I always thought there was a good compromise that people should be able to opt out, but it should be automatic enrolment in… we never got to have an adult conversation about that. I think it was just to destroy the student voice. Basically to destroy NZUSA.”

David Seymour agreed.

“We don’t want a student movement based on compulsion…if that’s disabling the student movement then yes, that was the purpose.”

Adam Logan Cairns is the 2017 President of Massey at Wellington Students’ Association (MAWSA). He says “jeez louise” unironically three times in our half hour meeting. He doesn’t drink coffee (unfathomable to me) but he accepts the juice I foist on him as penance for being late.

He says that while voluntary student membership has, in his view, made students’ associations more accountable (“It’s made sure we are on the ball… it lights a fire underneath the associations’ arses,”) it has also had a significant effect on MAWSA’s ability to advocate for students at a national level.

Now that tertiary providers can no longer take a students’ association levy from students upon enrolling, Massey University contracts the students’ associations on each campus to continue to provide the services. There is a pool of funding from the student services levy for which each association has to bid.

So the university still takes money from you either way – but now they are the middlemen controlling the purse strings, and students’ associations are accountable to them. But is this a conflict of interest? How can students’ associations provide an independent advocacy for students when it is funded by the University?

Tim Kendrew, MAWSA Clubs Development Coordinator, thinks the relationship is managed well.

“It sounds weird, but they have no control over us. I guess they could theoretically stop funding us if we did something that really upset them. From their end, I don’t know what their checks and balances are.”

So it seems despite that MAWSA bidding for its funding from the University, Massey doesn’t currently interfere with the students’ associations, though it could. Similarly, Massey funds Massive. Massey exerts no editorial control, but it does bankroll Massive’s continued existence, so it could theoretically put an end to students voice on campus – though it doesn’t appear that Massey has any desire to do so.

Cairns reckons that, at least here at Massey Wellington, the students’ association is doing okay, but a return to the universal student membership would mean that MAWSA could do more for students. He is particularly ardent about MAWSA’s membership to NZUSA. He thinks being a member of NZUSA is vital to the continuation of student activism. In a flurry of controversy, the MAWSA Executive opted out of membership of NZUSA this year. Cairns did not support that motion.

He says a lot of students tell him that they want a universal student allowance, but MAWSA not being a part of NZUSA means it’s difficult to lobby the government for those sorts of things.

“I need to be in a position where I can actually go to the government in a general election year and be like, ‘this is what my students want, and this is what they need, so give it to them’. If I’m not in that position, then how am I going to do that?”

He reckons under universal student membership MAWSA would have been more likely to join NZUSA and have this lobbying power by proxy.

“In terms of VSM – if we had that money [from universal student membership] – I would be able to do that. I’d be able to do my job a lot better.”

“As a politician now, I don’t pay a huge amount of attention to student politicians, because in my day, being a student politician was the most effective type of contraception available on campus,” David Seymour’s face briefly creases into a smile.

“That’s a good line, that’s definitely going in.”

By this point I seem to have forgotten that I was once one of these human condoms. Perhaps I still am. I hate the smell of latex.

So – could a compromise have worked?

“I don’t really see how there could be a compromise,”

So, no, then.

“But what I would say is that what we’ve got is that if you go to any university campus, there’s still a tramping club, there’s still a canoe club… etcetera.  There’s still those clubs, they still exist, and people still have the option of campus life… We were told that this [VSM] would be the end of student life. I think student life got a bit duller, but it’s not because of the unions,” Seymour says.

Last month marked the six year anniversary of the law change. As I moved further away from student politics physically and emotionally, I started to wonder if what we were fighting for was as righteous as we thought. I returned to study this year and noted that MAWSA still existed. I wondered, was VSM such a bad thing after all? Were we just hysterical, loony lefties bent on keeping our access to what David Seymour repeatedly called a “slush fund”?

The answer isn’t clear. A general view seems to be that students’ associations are definitely more accountable, perhaps because universities are more engaged stakeholders than students were. This accountability is definitely a good thing.

On the other hand, our students’ associations can no longer genuinely be described as independent – and those are the lucky ones, where a contract relationship has been established with the provider (in MAWSA’s case, Massey University). This has not been the case across the board. With less money to hand, and even less student engagement than before, it can be harder to serve and represent students. But students associations do still exist. Mostly. Albeit often in different forms than before the introduction of voluntary student membership.

It seems to me that it is still early days. Perhaps we will know the full effects of VSM in six more years’ time. Perhaps students’ associations will continue to hobble along like most nonprofits do.

Maybe I’ll be back in six years to report back. Or not. Perhaps because I don’t want to. I guess that’s freedom of choice.



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