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March 8, 2010 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Roger Douglas

ACT MP Roger Douglas is the author of the Education (Freedom of Association) Bill.

Why do you support Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) in student unions?

I support voluntary membership of student unions for the same reason that the overwhelming majority of people support voluntary trade unions—individuals should be free to associate with whatever group they choose.

What are the advantages that you believe VSM provides?

The primary advantage is that individuals will no longer be forced to associate with a group that they do not wish to support. One could argue that this will make student unions more accountable, but this is not the main reason why I support VSM.

Could you describe the key areas of the Freedom of Association Bill and what they are intended to accomplish?
The bill essentially does two things. First, it repeals the provisions that allow a majority of students to compel others to join an association. Second, it sets up provisions which prohibit requirements which would see students forced to associate. One part of this latter provision is a general anti-avoidance provision, and it is likely that the wording surrounding this provision will need to be tightened during the Select Committee stage.

What provisions for continued student unionism does the Freedom of Association Bill provide? Does it specifically deny any potential channels (such as funding of student unions by the university itself)?

The intent of the bill is not to prevent universities or polytechs from contracting out services to other groups, which may include students’ associations. As mentioned above, the exact wording of the general anti-avoidance provision may need to be tightened.

In what ways do the policies of ACT on student membership, and tertiary education in general, differ from those of National and Labour?

Well, on student associations, it is clear that Labour favour forcing students to join associations. I think students are smart enough to make decisions for themselves.

More generally on tertiary education, I will be releasing my full thoughts in a detailed paper later this year.

Apart from your bill, what other actions are ACT pursuing in support of VSM?

If the bill is passed, there will be no need for any other actions. Short of legislative change, students have no choice, so that is the only real way to create change.

What are your counter-arguments for the main points in favour of CSM (specifically, that student advocacy and services would suffer under VSM, that the university would adopt the services formerly offered by unions and charge more for them via the compulsory student levy, that having the university offer or fund these services presents a conflict of interest for students, and that it may be easier to reform the existing system instead [for example, removing conditions on opting out])?

Let’s start at the end there. Allowing students to freely opt out does not answer the central objection that I have to the status quo—that students are forced to associate with a group in the first place.

Going back to the first point, I am unsure on your definition of “suffer” is. If students’ associations receive less money because students choose not to join them, then students are on net better off. The students’ associations say they are there to help the students—and if students don’t want to join, then what does that tell you?

Take an analogy. When we ended the draft, there is no doubt that the military establishment “suffered” in the sense that it had fewer people to train, a smaller army, etc. But there is also no doubt that society was better off, because people could now exercise their right to freedom of association.

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