NZ students say: 'Butt out of student affairs'

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NZ students say: 'Butt out of student affairs'

By Zanny Begg

In April university students across New Zealand were asked to vote in referendums on whether membership of student unions should be compulsory or voluntary.

Initially the private member's bill from National Party backbencher Tony Steel introduced voluntary student membership (VSM) directly. But he was forced to amend the bill to allow students to hold referendums on the question after being lobbied by the NZ University Student Association (NZUSA).

The referendums were constructed carefully by the government to ensure a "voluntary" result. Student unions were forced to spend a dollar convincing students to support voluntary student unionism for every dollar they spent convincing students that student union membership should be compulsory. The ballot paper informed students that if they voted for voluntary membership, they would be refunded their student union fees, and the government prohibited students from paying for their fees out of the student loan scheme.

In the face of these obstacles, NZUSA was told by the media, politicians and the trade union leadership that it was fighting a losing battle.

Despite these hurdles, NZUSA launched a massive campaign to defend students unions, because as NZUSA co-president Karen Skinner explained, "We were not going to take VSM lying down".

The result? Five of the seven universities voted overwhelmingly against VSM.

At Massey, 46% of the student population turned out to vote and 65% voted against VSM. Massey has 14,000 external students who, Skinner says, everyone expected to vote for voluntary membership because they have little contact with the student union; but we "proved them wrong".

Lincoln and Canterbury universities' student unions had signed contracts with their university administrations guaranteeing them funding, but they still organised a campaign to defeat voluntary membership. At Lincoln University, a former agricultural college, the student union dressed up in gumboots and flannelette shirts and organised street theatre convincing 30% of the student population to vote and 74% to vote for compulsory membership.

At Canterbury over 65% of students voted for compulsory membership.

At Victoria University, 46% of the student population voted in the referendum and 72% voted for compulsory membership. Victoria University was expected to be the hardest campus to win because it is in NZ's capital, Wellington, and is considered to have a conservative student population.

At Otago the student union began the campaign against VSM a year ago, building up massive support for the student union. 57% of the student population voted, and 78.6% voted for compulsory membership. According to Skinner, one the strongest bases of support came from hostel students (residential colleges), where supporting compulsory unionism became the "thing to do".

The student movement lost only the referendums at Waikato and Auckland universities. At Waikato University, the student association has been dominated by far right organisations since 1996. A campus referendum on voluntary membership was passed in 1996 and again in 1997. By 1999 the student union had completely collapsed. Skinner explains this meant that many students "had never seen a functioning student union and did not know what there was to support".

The student movement was much more disappointed by the result at Auckland University. The win for voluntary unionism was very narrow: 51% of the student population voted, and 50.18% voted for voluntary membership.

Skinner explained how the mood at NZUSA offices fell when the results from Auckland came in: "By midday no-one had rung us from Auckland, and we knew that was a bad sign. When we rang them and heard the results, we were devastated. But then we looked at the figures and realised we had only lost by 98 votes. We do not consider that voluntary membership has a mandate at Auckland. We will contest the result by gathering a petition from 10% of the student population calling for a new referendum."

The student movement can learn lessons from the outcome at Auckland University. The most important of these was the type of campaign that the student movement needs to run to win.

Skinner argues that the student association put a major emphasis on services and "this backfired". "People cannot be mobilised around services because it is hard to convince them that these services will be lost under a voluntary arrangement. It was OK to run a campaign like this at Otago, where we had no opposition, but at Auckland as soon as the right mobilised and tried to tell students that services would be maintained under a privatised environment, our arguments fell away.

"We were able to mobilise people only when we explained the political nature of VSM. We had to explain to students that what they would really lose under VSM was their voice. Pushing the services line was a reason why we lost."

"One of the most convincing arguments we used in the campaign", Skinner explained, "was to look at the timing of the legislation. VSM was meant to come in May. The month after, a whole raft of new attacks on the tertiary education sector are going to be released by the government. Before the end of the year, the National Party government has to go to the polls. VSM was about silencing student opposition to the government."

Skinner considers a large part of the pro-compulsory vote as a vote "against the government". She argues that the vote is "a victory for students and for the left. It sends a clear message to the government to butt out of student affairs.

"We don't like them interfering, and we don't like their privatisation agenda in the tertiary sector; we don't like rising fees; we don't like what they are doing to New Zealand."

According to Skinner, students have played an important role in defending living standards in NZ and have won support because of that.

When the VSM legislation was announced, student unions received numerous offers of support because of the "activist role we play". The teachers' union distributed leaflets urging high school students to vote compulsory to all school leavers at the end of last year. People donated money to the campaign, and NZUSA built alliances with trade unions and NGOs. Skinner believes all these groups have been "empowered by the victory against VSM".

The government's response to the referendum results has been to lie low. Although the education minister helped draft the legislation, no government official would comment publicly on the results.

It was left to backbencher Tony Steel to debate Skinner on radio. He tried to insinuate that student unions had reneged on the agreement to spend equal amounts on the voluntary and compulsory campaign and that the results would be challenged in court. Skinner laughed this off: "We carried out the campaign totally above board and won convincingly".

The next fight students in NZ are facing is attempts by the government to remove student and staff representation on university councils, which was scheduled as a follow-up to the passing of the VSM referendums.

Skinner is already in the thick of this campaign, declaring that student associations will continue. "We have a strong mandate to be here and to fight. We will not be silenced because we are even stronger than we have ever been."