Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) – A socialist perspective

The Spark December 2010 – January 2011

Joel Cosgrove (Wellington Workers Party branch organiser and former president of Victoria University Students’ Association).

The Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill is making its way through parliament to make student union membership voluntary. Most people will be totally unaware of the bill and what it means, and may be thinking, “Anyway Freedom of Association is a good thing, isn’t it?”

Currently any student studying at a polytech or university is automatically a member of their student association. A student association levy is generally charged to cover student union running costs, and these range between approximately $75 and $150 per year. Students can opt out of their membership but only upon reasons of hardship or conscientious objection. With a conscientious objection opt-out they are still liable to pay their membership levy.

On-and-off, since the 1970’s, this point of compulsion has waxed and waned as a political issue. Since the 1990s the issue has generally excited the membership of the youth and student wings’ of both the ACT and National parties. National MP Tony Steel brought forward a VSM bill in 1998 that brought about a nationwide referendum in every tertiary institute on the issue of whether student associations would stay “compulsory” or go “voluntary”. The only tertiary institute that went “voluntary” was Auckland University. Many institutes (including Victoria and Otago Universities) voted over 70% to stay “compulsory”. The difference with the current law is that it offers no choice to students on the issue. Funnily enough, students as a whole have voted to remain “compulsory”. “This Bill is an ideological solution in search of a problem. It is bad policy to impose such upheaval and chaos when there are many bigger issues facing the tertiary sector and New Zealand at present,” Said David Do, 2010 Co-President of the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations. “Generations of students have enjoyed the services and opportunities provided by associations, and this shouldn’t be taken away from future students,” says Pene Delaney the other 2010 NZUSA co-President.

While the co-Presidents are correct, the ‘end of nigh’ predictions put forward are also unlikely to come about. The reality is that the bill is being put forward as an ideological back pat to the ACT Party (whose bill this is) and a sop to the youth wing of the National Party. Compromise was apparently agreed on to make it easier to opt out politically, but fraudulence at the Whitirea Students’ Association – of more than one million dollars – scuppered any compromise and the bill is now being pushed through unchanged. Any talk though of the extinction of Student Associations is premature. Auckland University Students’ Association has been voluntary since 1999 and has survived through grants from the University and from pre-existing business e.g. catering, rental properties etc. This is the model that most Student Associations will follow. It won’t be the end of associations as entities, as they can play a role that is useful to the university in terms of mediating student anger and organising against the ongoing attacks on student conditions. The experience of AUSA (of which David Do was a past-president) is that the university can hold the threat of cuts to student association funding if the student association protests or organises in a way that annoys or threatens the institution.

Political power and students
The central question is this: What political difference will VSM make? The experience of the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA) is that political dominance by the university establishment already exists. For example, the Gender and Women’s Studies programme has been repeatedly attacked by the university administration over the past five years, in part for its refusal to quietly accept cuts. The student association in the most recent series of attacks, solely organised submissions to a panel system that has been shown time and time again to be a predetermined panel staffed by HR staff and compliant academics. Yet still again and again, the student politicians have played by the university’s rules and within its systems. For another example, VUWSA recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the police, breaking a 100-year ‘no cops on campus’ position. Labour Party-affiliated VUWSA president Max Hardy crowed that it was the first fee-setting “in eight or nine years that had not been disrupted by student protest”, as if this were a good thing. The reality is that on the campuses student associations gain a lot more volunteer labour than the university establishments do. People are willing to work for less or nothing to get things done. An “independent” association also functions as a good diffuser of political tension and radicalism, advocating submissions and petitions as opposed to direct action or collective action. As well as that the high-jinks and controversies associated with student organisations are at arms length from a tertiary institution, who can claim plausible deniability. So it is without any clear political rationale that student associations fight against this right-wing policy, apart from the “free” money that comes with compulsory membership. It automatically appears in the bank account of the association and no work is needed beyond that. Negotiating with the university, and not necessarily engaging with students themselves, is the only real reason that the current student political establishment is interested in preserving the status quo. However the reason the right put this proposal forward is to strip students of an independent entity controlled by students for students. There is always the potential in a radical period for radicalised students to take control as has happened all over the world historically. The goal is always to nip this potential in the bud by cutting the resources. It is students who lose out in these situations, not the student politicians. Money for campaigning is rationed out tightly, or not at isolated student grievances and to not look for collective solutions to the many problems that plague student life on and off campus. This is already the reality of stripped-out freedoms before the introduction of VSM.

Lack of militancy
The primary problem in all of this is the lack of student militancy, which is generally linked to the wider low levels of class consciousness and class activity. The structures that have existed for over a hundred years can only be defended by a strong student mobilisation/consciousness. If that doesn’t exist then any structures of student organisation are reliant on political patronage and support. From the 1980s onwards a disproportionate number of student politicians have gone on to become Labour Party MPs. In the last ten years they have stopped even bothering to gain anything on their CV other than “Student Politician”. The effect of these roles being used as gateways to political patronage has meant that just like in their later roles, these people saw themselves clearly as the mediators between students and the institutions, responsible, level-headed and very middle of the road. That’s not to say it was any different in the past, rather the nature of the mediating role has heightened and consolidated into something much more overt. A key feature of all this that continues to this day is the view of student union leaders as being hostile to the students themselves. From experience, most student politicians don’t believe that students actually support them on most political and administrative matters. A conscious and engaged student body is one that asks questions, holds student politicians to account and queries and debates political and financial decisions. Student Politicians operating in a “non-political” environment, work from their offices, infrequently going outside to actually engage with students, thereby reinforcing the isolated political bubble of ignorance and fear. Ironically, the level of student mobilisation and consciousness required to defend the associations from VSM is seen to be toxic by the student politicians themselves. As student associations cannot fully control active students politically they can see it as easier to deal with the university or the state than with students themselves. The inanity of the campaign to defend Student Association “freedom” occurs on many levels. Students are no at all active or militant, so lobbying is used instead. Of the couple of thousand submissions lodged at the select committee, the vast majority were pre-printed cards that students had signed. A poll commissioned by NZUSA found that “77% of respondents felt that students should decide the structure of membership of their associations”.  But vague unpopularity has never put a chill in a government’s spine. The only thing such polls can do is bolster the confidence of the small group of student politicians who care.

The way forward for radical politics on campus?
The introduction of VSM will be a negative development. Nevertheless, negative developments often contain the kernel of another positive development. A potential benefit for radical and revolutionary politics on campus’s is that the student associations under VSM are more clearly linked to and subservient to the tertiary institutions they exist in. The false impression of independence that currently exists is undermined when the university commands the student association’s finances. The only people who have a clear political interest in retaining the independent structure of the students association are actually radicals themselves. An autonomous structure that has clear democratic frameworks is something we should fight for. However if the student body itself is not prepared for whatever reason to defend their association, then there is little that socialists can do to intervene. The Workers Party has a number of years experience in students’ associations and that experience has clearly demonstrated the problems of being elected to the executive without a conscious radical periphery, let alone a radical mass of students. What we need to look to then – in terms of student activism – is to build the radical left in the universities. In effect the far left needs to bypass these new structures, remain affiliated in clubs, and base our activism there. We can’t ignore the VSM Student Associations, but we need to be clear to any conscious students that militant organisation against cuts and attacks by tertiary institutions and/or the government need to be waged by fighting organisations, not beholden associations.

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