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September 23, 2013 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

VUWSA Referendum 2013: That VUWSA Stay in NZUSA

In the upcoming VUWSA General Election, you will be asked to decide whether VUWSA should stay in NZUSA or leave. What is NZUSA, you say? Well, settle down, and get yourself informed ahead of this year’s big vote.

NZUSA is the New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations, of which VUWSA, and most other universities’ and polytechs’ students’ associations are members. Each students’ association pays an annual fee to NZUSA which is based on the size and financial viability of the association. In 2013, VUWSA’s contribution was $45,000.

In an ideal world, NZUSA would allow New Zealand’s various students’ associations to speak as one united voice, on behalf of students nationwide. The Union would act as a strong lobby, pushing for serious issues facing the tertiary sector, like cuts to student allowances and ever-rising fees. However, some feel that NZUSA, despite being resourced by students around the country, is doing far too little to speak on behalf of them. Following a request for a referendum on VUWSA’s membership, the Exec decided to put it out to their members—now let’s see what our options are…



In the week following the request for a referendum on the topic, VUWSA President Rory McCourt released a joint press statement with University of Otago and Auckland’s student presidents stating that they would be requesting a series of reforms at the NZUSA Conference, to be held in early November.

These reforms are intended to tackle some of the concerns held by both students and the associations about NZUSA’s direction in recent years. At minimum, these changes would push for more student-relevant campaigns, a governance structure that was more inclusive of the association presidents, and a renewed focus on the core services that NZUSA should be focussing on—however, any reforms suggested by any member is open for discussion.

In a statement to Salient, NZUSA Executive Director Dr Alistair Shaw emphasised that there was zero possibility of NZUSA not being reformed. The thing is, NZUSA already went through a whole series of reforms in 2011. It brought in all the polytechs and created more of a streamlined hierarchy for clearer direction, where a Board provided governance rather than a federation of association presidents. This also resulted in the establishment of the Executive Director position that Shaw filled.

There appears to be widespread dissatisfaction with NZUSA, with Waikato Student Union President Aaron Letcher politicking hard to undo all the aforementioned reforms, as in his eyes they haven’t delivered. However, there was a reason such reforms happened—NZUSA needed to improve. The question remains whether just simply going back to how it was will address the concerns with the status quo.

Looking at NZUSA’s performance in 2013, there is great scope for improvement. NZUSA President, Pete Hodkinson, should be a spokesperson for students but is virtually unknown; time and money has been invested in a number of nationwide tours and projects that have seemingly little relevance to students, such as discussing retirement; and although NZUSA does huge amounts of valuable research in the tertiary sector, it is seldom publicised.

It’s difficult to know whether this is the fault of the President himself, or the structures that steer the direction within NZUSA. At the VUWSA Executive meeting where NZUSA and the referendum requester faced off, both Hodkinson and Shaw blamed VUWSA for not using internal processes to address their concerns—whereas VUWSA considered this the fault of those within NZUSA.

Removing students’ associations guaranteed source of income—students—in order to create an incentive to improve was the reasoning behind Voluntary Student Membership. And while we have seen huge improvements in terms of accountability, transparency, and more responsible spending of student money in some regards, VSM has also severely weakened student representation and the quality of events such as O-Week. Reform is certainly a safer way to encourage change.



The Cost of NZUSA

The cost of paying the ongoing $45,000 NZUSA membership fee needs to be considered within the context of VUWSA’s financial position. VUWSA’s operating deficit is ~$200,000 and the association only has about $1m in the bank, set aside during the golden days of compulsory student fees. This means it is steering itself towards an early death, by propping up an organisation which is widely accepted among this executive and previous ones to not deliver the results VUWSA hope for. Pulling out of NZUSA would make it that much easier to get back to breaking even, or dare we say ~surplus~, as well as not compromising the services and sustainability of the association as a whole in what it gives to its members Victoria students. Financial security is something that is in the forefront of this executive’s mind as they go into setting next year’s budget later this year. If they don’t cut NZUSA, it’s likely they will cut service and welfare spending on Victoria students instead. Or staff.

The Referendum Wording

The referendum asks students whether VUWSA should continue to be a member of NZUSA and the options are ‘Yes, with reforms’ or ‘No’. As VUWSA, AUSA and OUSA haven’t yet sorted out the vision they hope to achieve in their aforementioned press release, it’s not clear what exactly the reforms would mean, and whether they will be good enough to drastically improve NZUSA. It’s also a gamble in the sense that the presidents who are ‘promising’ to do it won’t be around next year, so you can’t write them an angry email about broken promises, broken dreams.

NZUSA Performance and Reform

Hodkinson has not met with Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce in over 18 months, which is shocking for the primary advocate from students, and he couldn’t point to any key achievements over his two years in the role when being questioned by the VUWSA Exec. Questions have to be asked about how he was elected two years in a row, though they can probably be answered by the fact that there are very few student leaders who actually want the job. However, next year could look a bit more promising, with Labour and its typically more NZUSA-aligned policies looking more likely than National to return to Government.

The more inherent problem with NZUSA reforms is that the members want to pull the organisation in different directions. While Polytech Students’ Associations would prefer an NZUSA which provides core support services to them, VUWSA and other university students’ associations want a national representative voice. NZUSA doesn’t have the resources to sustainably do both under VSM, which is what has led to much of the dissatisfaction with NZUSA. VUWSA’s short-term goal appears to be to wrestle control of NZUSA back from the Polytechs, but this seems unsustainable in the long run.

The Future of National Student Representation

The reality is that with the moves by Waikato Students’ Union to withdraw membership, NZUSA is already a sinking ship. More members are likely to withdraw as they face greater cost pressures due to VSM.

A new student representative body will form to replace NZUSA and advocate for students. It would have to run at substantially lower cost to be effective. There is no need for highly remunerated staff like the current Executive Director of NZUSA who earns a salary over $90,000; grassroots organisations like Generation Zero have shown that advocacy can occur on a voluntary basis.


About the Author ()

Salient is a magazine. Salient is a website. Salient is an institution founded in 1938 to cater to the whim and fancy of students of Victoria University. We are partly funded by VUWSA and partly by gold bullion that was discovered under a pile of old Salients from the 40's. Salient welcomes your participation in debate on all the issues that we present to you, and if you're a student of Victoria University then you're more than welcome to drop in and have tea and scones with the contributors of this little rag in our little hideaway that overlooks Wellington.

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