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February 18, 2008 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Mummy, What’s a VUWSA?

Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association
Warning: Studying at Victoria, you will find yourself bombarded with a mysterious Acronym: VUWSA. Much talk of AGMs, late budgets, the seconding of constitutional motions, and grants – glorious, glorious club grants – will eventually filter through to you. But mother, what on earth is all this stuff?

0801-02.jpgVUWSA is made up of an Executive, elected by students (well, the ten per cent who bother to vote) every year, plus a corps of employed staff. VUWSA takes a levy of $125 from you at the beginning of each year. In return, it funds clubs and societies, orientation, advocacy work, Salient magazine, and a food bank. It owns Vic Books, and used to help manage the Student Union Building until its 1992 student-funded upgrade (more on that later). VUWSA holds assets to the value of one million dollars and we, as students, own its collective ass.

When Victoria College was created in 1899, the very first incarnation of VUWSA – the Victoria College Students’ Society – was created, with an executive of seven men and five women. Victoria University initially consisted of the Hunter building standing alone in the freshly cut earth, nicknamed “that old clay patch” by its students.

0801-03.jpgIn 1906, they successfully campaigned for discounts on the cable car. At this time, almost all students worked full or part time as clerks for the growing civil service, so lectures were held before 9am and after 5pm; the VCSS also campaigned to shift 5pm lectures back ten minutes, in order to allow students time to get up the muddy hills to class.

picture-2.pngMuch of VUWSA’s early years were taken up with respectable support for – and mild academic criticism of – the world wars. When the Defence Act of 1909 legislated compulsory military training for men, 74 students banded together to form an Officer Training Corp and carry out manoeuvres on Kelburn Hill. Many would perish in the Great War to follow. In 1921 when a Teachers’ College student was arrested for “selling literature encouraging violence and lawlessness” at a Communist Party meeting, the renamed Victoria College Students Association cooperated with authorities in an enquiry to root out the Red Menace. Membership of the Association became compulsory two years later.

picture-1.pngFrom 1902, the Society published a poetry-and-clubs-updates booklet entitled The Spike. It consisted roughly of one third vaguely edgy but comfortable school-boy verse, one third news on the football club, heretics club et cetera, and one third ads for pianos. Apparently pianos were the old-school iPod. The Spike was followed in 1930 by Smad, a news-focused magazine, which morphed in 1938 into Salient and began running debates on the rightness of World War Two.

Red Menace of Kelburn Hill – Student Activism after World War Two

picture-3.pngBesides some earlier outcry over the Great Depression and war, the radical wing of VUWSA which we have come to expect today did not materialise until the 1960s. This may be because it was during the sixties that Vic became populated largely by full-time students able to devote themselves to politics and protest. Simultaneously, the opening of the Student Union Building meant the student exec moved from simple lobbying into an administrative function. picture-5.pngThe new student radicalism first emerged with the Anarchist Association’s anger that the Exec was not protesting fee rises, and concern over the Special Intelligence Service monitoring students’ lives. It went on to encapsulate opposition to the Vietnam War, feminist outcry at the Miss Vic pageant, and anti-trade protest – in 1972, a group of radicals threw two fertiliser bombs into the Student Union Building as it hosted an economic forum.

picture-4.pngDuring the 1970s, when VUWSA annual general meetings attracted crowds of over a thousand, student radicalism developed a particular focus on anti-apartheid work. In 1964, students dug up the Basin Reserve pitch prior to a visit by the South African cricket team, and in 1970, a few students were arrested trying to stop the All Blacks’ plane from leaving for South Africa. Finally, during the 1981 Springbok tour, for once a (disputed) majority of students joined together in anti-tour protests. picture-8.pngDue to the general belligerence of student activism in this era, the VUWSA Trust was set up in 1975 to cover the cost of defamation and libel suits against Salient, which at the time was run by communists. The Trust subsequently lost $100,000 in the ’87 stockmarket crash. Oops.

On top of all this, when the Student Union Building was renovated in 1992, although the Students’ Association had always had a majority control in the management of the building and paid the entire cost of renovation, the University decided to hand its management to a separate entity – The Union – which students have no control over. picture-7.pngWhile the Union is not particularly evil, their relationship with VUWSA has not always been smooth. It fell apart in 2002, but has been improving recently, with the establishment of a Joint Student Union Board in 2006.

Coffee and Privatisation – The Decline in Student Activism

Nowadays, the increasing cost of living in Wellington means Vic students have moved increasingly back into part-time work.

picture-10.pngThe radicalism of the seventies, which began to decline after the violent mess of the ’81 tour, is once again only evidenced by a small minority of students. A small but vocal group of students began demanding an end to compulsory membership of VUWSA, although they have so far been rebuffed whenever the issue has been put to a vote. The apparent decline in student activism has been attributed to many things. The introduction of internal assessment over the last couple of decades means students no longer have vast stretches of time between exams when they can go around occupying buildings and getting arrested. The increased cost of study is another factor – in 1989, the Labour Government increased yearly fees tenfold to $1,250. Fees continued to multiply throughout the subsequent National Government, and although the current Labour administration has slowed things down, fees continue to rise faster than wages. Such increases, plus the rising cost of renting flats in Wellington, force most students to work while they study, which also results in less time to spend participating in university life.

picture-11.pngThe final nail in the coffin for mass student activism may have come on the fifteenth of February, 2003. On that day, millions of people marched around the globe in the largest day of protest ever. But the war still went ahead anyways. Can anyone say “What a fucking disheartening result”?

The Present Day

Despite the increased pressure on students’ time and their decreased influence in the running of their university, the politics of VUWSA grind onward. In 2006 VUWSA was led by socialist president Nick Kelly, who tried to sell his hair on Trade Me. He has gone on to become a bus driver and stood unsuccessfully for the Wellington City mayoralty. At the end of 2006 students got tired of socialism and opted for Young Labour’s Geoff “da Maori” Hayward as 2007 president.

picture-13.pngThe 2007 executive became famous when one member drew LOVE graffiti on Student Union Building walls, another urinated in public, and a third spent thousands of dollars on phone psychics (which was eventually repaid). At the end of the year, students opted for a return to socialism and elected Kelly’s comrade Joel Cosgrove as leader for 2008. Cosgrove used to sport an army helmet and once got himself roughed-up by a female cop as he protested John Howard’s visit to Vic. If Salient wasn’t so PC we would hassle him for getting decked by a girl… While these shenanigans have drawn a lot of unwanted attention to VUWSA, behind the scenes much important work is carried out. In 2006 long-running legal issues with the University over the Union building and with the Maori students’ group Ngai Tauira were sorted out. In 2007 a new radio station, The VBC, was started up with the help of the VUWSA Trust, years after Radio Active left campus. VUWSA also staged a cardboard-box “sleep in” in the Quad to campaign for lower rents. They continue to distribute free bread (which you can pick up from their office, in the basement of the Student Union Building, on Wednesdays and Fridays).

By Tristan Egarr Cartoons by Grant Buist


About the Author ()

Tristan Egarr edited in 2008. He threw a chair once.

Comments (6)

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  1. Hi there.
    I’m interested in writing for Salient this year.
    Who should I contact?

  2. Nic says:

    Hi there,
    Me too.

  3. yip says:

    Hi Michelles. Send all correspondence to We typically ask for a writing sample and a general outline of what you hope to achieve this year.

  4. yip says:


    foiled again.

  5. Good story T-Dawg. I now know heaps more about my favourite organisation.

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