Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Deconstructing Nicola Kean

Nicola Kean’s 7 May article in Salient on voluntary student association membership has attracted a number of comments on the Salient site, including a complaint from Ms Kean that voluntary membership supporters “haven’t made any substantive criticism of the piece - which doesn’t really aid your argument. You can’t just call me biased because I don’t agree with you.”

So in the interests of fairness and balance – two elements missing from Nicola’s original article – we’d like to review her article.


Nicola writes: The debate over Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) sends a shiver down the spine of most students’ association presidents and exec members across the country.

Voluntary membership does indeed scare the pants off student politicians because vm means the end of ‘money for nothing’. Voluntary associations would have to earn their income rather than having it collected by institutions and delivered on a plate. Currently compulsory associations receive unearned income.

Having wrestled with voluntary student unionism – and for the most part won – in the mid-1990s, a law change in Australia last year and the possibility of a National Government being elected in 2008 means the VSM ghost has returned to haunt students’ associations.

More and more people are realising that there’s something fundamentally wrong with compulsory membership. The Ngai Tauira fraud, the Vuwsa fee increase and the $6000 phone call are manifestations of this fundamental problem. More people now understand that voluntary membership will change the relationship between students and associations and will remove guaranteed funding which leads to so many problems. These people aren’t necessarily anti-student associations; they simply realise that although compulsory membership delivers ship loads of money, it ultimately works against the interests of students. Voluntary associations won’t be perfect but they’ll be a darn sight better than current compulsory ones.

Here’s how it works: every university and polytech in New Zealand has a students’ association – by law only one is recognised on each campus.

Really, what about Maori student associations? Or are they only nominally independent?

With the exception of students at Auckland University, you will automatically become a member when you enrol. And the charge – at Vic $120 per year – is coat-tailed on to your student loan along with the money you pay in course fees.

Now this is true, but it’s funny that when you hear student politicians complaining about the student loan scheme you never hear them complaining about students being able to pay their compulsory association levies through the scheme.

For this you are represented by VUWSA on various committees, and entitled to other services – such as advocacy, orientation and welfare.

This is the most telling line in Nicola’s story. Rather than presenting an objective examination of the issues involved, Nicola has regurgitated the pro-compulsory side’s two main arguments without question. The claim that compulsory associations provide ‘representation’ and ‘services’ is highly contentious and is regularly challenged by voluntary supporters. By blandly repeating the compulsory side’s argument Nicola shows she either doesn’t understand the key issues of the debate or is deliberately attempting to portray compulsion in its best possible light. Either way it undermines her article. If she’d bothered to talk to Student Choice for her article she would have heard this point of view, but maybe that’s why she didn’t want to talk to us.

For Nicola’s benefit, here’s the counter to her claim that compulsory associations provide representation and services.

Just because a person has been forced to join a group it doesn’t mean that they are represented. As we’ve said before – true representation requires permission. You give your permission for a group to represent you by joining that group. No such agreement takes place under compulsory membership therefore there is no legitimate representation.

Nicola, ask yourself two questions:
- if you were forced to join the National Party, would the National Party automatically represent you?

- how does Vuwsa, when it’s promoting policies identical to the Greens, represent the views of students who vote National?

The second claim about ‘services’ brushes a number of issues under the carpet. First, advocacy is a merely a form of representation so see above. Second, you may not want or need any of these ‘services’ but under compulsory membership you’ve been forced to pay for them. If you’re forced to pay for something you don’t want your money has been wasted. How can wasting students’ money be classified as a ‘service’?

In 1997 a bill championed by former MP Michael Laws was passed through Parliament…

Greg has already pointed out that it was Tony Steel and not Michael Laws. Was this an honest mistake or an attempt to link voluntary membership with the terminally uncool Wanganui mayor? Dunno.

Waikato – which was already voluntary – remained so and it has since come back into the compulsory fold.

There’s a huge untold story here, namely that between 1996 and 1999 Waikato students voted for voluntary in three referenda and elected four pro-voluntary executives. The return to compulsory membership came as a result of an extensive campaign by non-Waikato associations including NZUSA and a shonky 11th hour referenda.

The Labour Party is opposed to voluntary association membership…

Even though membership of the Labour Party itself is voluntary. Well avoided Nicola.

Nicola’s not responsible for the following points from NZUSA but while we’re here let’s look at Joey Randall’s arguments.

New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations Co-President, Joey Randall, naturally, disagrees…”Our argument very much is that [the current law] is working, it’s not broken.”

Of course it’s not broken from NZUSA’s perspective; the law means student associations get millions of dollars without lifting a finger.

“Our [NZUSA’s] argument is that a National government would and should have greater priorities in tertiary education than this.”

That’s really useful advice from an organisation that is deeply anti-National and has been for years.

"We [NZUSA] haven’t seen [referenda on the issue]”, he continues, “so there isn’t necessarily the support with students at the moment, as no one has actively tried to get that number of signatures. I would suggest that the majority of students would think that it’s probably working.”

Randall knows that any student who tries to organise a referendum is on a hiding to nothing. They’re immediately up against the local association and NZUSA. That’s how the law is designed. It presents a façade of fairness – if you don’t like compulsory membership then organise a referendum – when in fact the odds are stacked against anyone who goes up against the power of an association. Students realise it’s an uneven playing field so don’t even waste their time trying.

But for Roy, it’s an ideological issue of choice and freedom of association.

Back to Nicola. As others have pointed out, it’s funny how only the voluntary side is motivated by ‘ideology’. Apparently the compulsory side must be operating their agenda without the benefit of ideas.

However, in its current form, the bill would still enable students to switch back to voluntary by referenda.

No it won’t Nicola. Heather’s bill is based on the principle of individual choice, not a majority of people who choose to vote being able to force something onto others.

“I think it’s very interesting when you paint choice as a stark black and white thing,” Randall says. “The reality is students don’t have the amount of choice that they do have under voluntary that they do have under compulsory.”

And the winner of the 2007 Orwell prize for Doublespeak is Joey Randall.

He argues that student unions are different from other unions because of the advocacy services they provide.

What??? Trade unions don’t provide advocacy? And does the provision of advocacy justify compulsion somehow? Hundreds of other incorporated societies provide advocacy but none of them are compulsory. And student associations are not trade unions; associations are merely incorporated societies.

Under a voluntary regime, for example, it may be more difficult for students’ associations to retain seats or choose who will represent their members on committees such as the University Council – as Roy’s bill would seek to repeal the section of the Education Act that rules that Councils must recognise one association per campus.

Utter rubbish Joey. Other groups – staff, alumni, employers – manage to have representatives on councils without compulsory membership. Why can’t that same principle apply to students? When WSU was voluntary Waikato students elected a representative for council in a process that was separate from WSU.

Furthermore, the experience of voluntary membership in New Zealand and Australia thus far has placed students’ associations at the mercy of their institutions.

Compulsory associations are currently totally dependent on institutions because institutions collect fees from students and pass the money to associations. If associations had to collect their own fees how many people do you think would pay? Voluntary associations would have a direct relationship with their members and would be truly independent of institutions.

“From what we’ve seen in Australia”, says Randall, “a lot of unions are folding, a lot of their functions have been dramatically cut down – so a lot of staff have been reduced. Where those staff have been reduced are in the areas that are less likely to make money: advocacy and representation.” In other words, staff that are employed to make sure students aren’t getting a tough deal, investigating academic grievances and providing welfare services are the first to go when the belt is tightened.

If that’s true how does Joey account for the ongoing existence of hundreds of voluntary groups that provide advocacy? Take the Automobile Association for example – they provide direct benefits that attract members and can still provide the sporadic services that members only use occasionally plus they deliver non-specific representation. It’s a matter of getting the balance right.

In some universities in Australia where student unions have survived intact, it has been partially because the university has been providing the associations with money. Auckland has a similar agreement with university management, which Randall says from his experience as a former vice-president limited the ability of the association to stand up to the university. “Each year, the students’ association has a service agreement that they have to renew with the university, and there was always a bit of worry around what that would mean for their ability to advocate for students.”

I don’t necessarily disagree with this. A service agreement can compromise a voluntary association’s independence but what’s more important is that institutions aren’t allowed to use agreements as a backdoor method of funding associations. A voluntary bill needs to make provision for this.

“[AUSA] spends a huge amount of its money signing up members and trying to be attractive to students. What I think is more important is, are they able to deliver for students? Because while during Orientation it might seem great that you’re getting all this free stuff, what I think is more important is, are you getting effective advocacy and support?”

At least AUSA has to consider what students want. Under voluntary, if members feel they’re not getting “effective advocacy and support” they can always leave or not rejoin.

But while in public VUWSA seems like a bunch of morons, in the background academic grievances are sorted out, clubs operate, free bread is distributed, and our athletes didn’t do too badly at the recent Uni Games.

If this is true then Vuwsa could go voluntary and market these benefits to potential members.

Roy is right when she says the VSM issue is about choice. But choice should be made by students, not by right wing politicians in the debating chamber who want to make students’ associations voluntary for almost purely ideological reasons.

More doublespeak. The voluntary view is motivated by ideology as much as the compulsory view. They’re both based on ideology; it’s the quality of the ideas that matters. And our current legislation is based on the ideology of left wing politicians – Nicola doesn’t seem worried about that.

I agree that the “choice should be made by students” but the big issue is what do you mean by “students”? Nicola means a majority of those who vote in referenda and elections and are then able to force their views on others.

Student Choice believes that “students” should mean the individual student. The individual should decide whether or not to join a group. That’s how membership of all other incorporated societies is decided. Membership shouldn’t be forced on an individual as a result of someone else’s vote.

Overall, Nicola demonstrated a bias towards compulsory membership. That’s her right – but students shouldn’t be forced to subsidise the magazine which gives her a platform.

Finally it should be remembered that Nicola is not an impartial reporter attempting to give both sides of the story. As she says herself, “if VSM is voted in, students are going to lose certain things that students’ associations provide. Fullstop.”

Fullstop indeed.

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2 Comments:

At Wed May 16, 12:54:00 PM 2007, Blogger MikeE said...

Has nicolar joined the NZBU yet (voluntarily of course)?

 
At Thu May 17, 08:08:00 PM 2007, Blogger Nicholas said...

I wish I had that much free time.

I think I'd hug orphans, or learn how to solder or something.

You probably spent more time writing that than Nicola did writing the article. And only half the number of people will read it. God knows I didn't - I'm just speaking out of ignorance.

Makes you think.

 

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