Who protects students from student associations?
Help the police – beat yourself up.
Another reason put forward by apologists of compulsory membership is the claim that compulsory associations protect students from the ravages of unsympathetic or hostile institutional employees, policies and processes. The compulsory association is portrayed as the protector of students, wrapping them up in big cosy blanket of collectivism.
However for many individual students the reality has been quite different. Students who have refused to toe an association’s line or have got offside with student politicians have found themselves subject to abuses from the leaders of the very organisations which claim to protect and represent the interests of the individual students.
These abuses include:
- physical violence, threatened and actual
- harassment and intimidation
- threats of legal action
- verbal abuse
- charges of racism or some other form of incorrect thinking, and
- campaigns of abuse and ridicule conducted through student media.
Although some of these abuses are difficult (but not impossible) to document, one case from Waikato University in 2003 provides an insight into what happened when one student at Waikato University discovered that rather than the university, the compulsory Waikato Students Union (WSU) had become a major source of stress and humiliation in her life.
In May 2006 the Employment Relations Authority released a report on its investigation into the employment relationship between former WSU employee Jackie de Souza and the Waikato Students’ Union. The hearing arose over conflict between de Souza and her employer, 2003 WSU president Daniel Philpott, dating back to de Souza’s employment and subsequent dismissal as WSU advocacy coordinator in 2003. Ms de Souza also served as WSU vice president from January to February 2003.
The ERA found that Philpott, as de Souza’s employer, had failed to provide her with a safe workplace. The Authority said Philpott had taken actions which caused de Souza “distress and humiliation which was both predictable and unnecessary.” Philpott’s actions stemmed from what the Authority surmised was his “deeply held personal conviction that members of the Executive should not also be employees of the WSU.”
The ERA found that there was evidence to suggest Philpott’s behaviour towards de Souza was a “deliberate and sustained attempt to cause her stress and humiliation.” The Authority found that de Souza had a personal grievance against WSU, and the ERA official commented that “the level of stress suffered by Ms de Souza was at a level more serious than most I have seen”. For that reason he set compensation to de Souza at $10,000, which was at the high end of the range usually awarded by the Authority.
Compulsory membership itself did not cause de Souza’s situation; her treatment after all resulted from the actions of an individual, and bad decisions can occur in voluntary organisations. But compulsory membership did facilitate the environment in which these abuses could take place.
Without compulsory membership WSU would not have had a pool of almost $750,000 which supported a bureaucracy of such a size that fulltime student politicians were required to govern it. These student politicians are often people in their twenties with no experience as managers or employers. They find themselves in charge of large organisations with numerous employees and inevitably mistakes occur.
Some student politicians muddle through without doing too much damage while behind the scenes the fulltime employees run the show. Others get bogged down in organisational issues which can rarely be solved within a single 12 month term. And others make bad decisions which end up costing students thousands of dollars. Given the reporting times the actual costs of bad decisions only emerge years later by which time those responsible and those who knew the details have moved on. Everybody forgets, and next year the association gets another truckload of unearned income.
Compulsory membership puts huge amounts of money is in the hands of people who haven’t earned it and have no experience as employers or in managing organisations as politically-charged as student associations. If they stuff up, the organisation does not suffer any drop in income from dissatisfied members withdrawing or not joining.
Politicians and tertiary governors need to be asked how they can defend a regime which forces students to fund a system which, as the de Souza case illustrates, wastes so much money and damages people in the process.