When students first enrol at University, they can choose which university to attend, what degree to study, what papers to take and where to live. They can even choose to join ACT on Campus and get involved in student politics. However, there is a decision that isn't made by students but by politicians in Wellington - whether or not to join the University Students' Association.
Every year, students become a member of their university's students' association, and pay a fee for the privilege. This is done automatically as part of the enrolment process and the fee is hidden in with all the university's other service fees, meaning that most students don't even realise that they are now a member and have paid this fee. The amount of this fee is set by the student association itself, there is no legal limit to what they may charge, and there are no legal limits to what they may spend this money on. This fee is compulsory and if anyone refuses to pay the fee or become a member of the students' association their enrolment will not be processed and they won't be able to sit exams or graduate.
A Fundamental Human Right
Voluntary membership is founded on the principle of freedom of association. This freedom is guaranteed to all New Zealanders in the New Zealand Bill Of Rights Act 1990 and is an essential part of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of association is not about right or left wing politics, it is about an individual being free to choose who to associate with and which groups to join.
Compulsory membership forces students to join their university's student association and pay for the privilege of having someone speak on their behalf, whether they agree with what their student association is saying or not. That is why ACT have introduced the Education (Freedom of Association) Bill. It is about giving individual students the right to choose for themselves whether they want to join their students association or not. Under the current law that is not possible unless 50% of students at a university vote in a referendum to become voluntary - as they did at Auckland University.
ACT on Campus doesn't believe that is acceptable. On the one hand, we have the law and the United Nations promising us a fundamental human right, and on the other we have someone saying that you can only have that right if 50 per cent of students agree with you. This defies the very purpose of a right – something you should always have - and ACT on Campus thinks all students, across New Zealand, should have that right.
Representation Or Misrepresentation
Students associations also claim to represent students and to give students a voice. However, given that everyone has different beliefs, students associations cannot represent all students’ views. What voice does a student’s association make use of when all its members are saying different things?
Voluntary membership gives each and every one of us our own voices back – to do with them as we please. Then, if you DO agree with your student association and DO want them to represent your views, you can sign up, but you also have the chance to use your own voice and say, “No, they don't represent me!” With compulsory membership, every time a student association takes a position on an issue, it misrepresents some of its forced members.
Here is the ACT on Campus submission to the Education and Science Select Committee on the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill. Hit the Fullscreen button for a better view.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Don't students already have the choice to make their students' association voluntary?
A: Yes, the current law allows for a referendum to be held on campus, however, this is not an acceptable solution for two reasons:
Principally, Freedom of Association is a fundamental human right of an individual, not of a group. Society decides many things by a majority vote, but the whole point of rights is that they are things that people should always have - things that a majority should not be able to vote away.
Practically, a referendum on campus simply does not work.
Firstly, for a referendum to be called, someone must collect the signatures of over 10% of the student body. This doesn't sound too onerous, until one realises that election turnouts in students' association's elections are typically 5%-12% of the student body. The last by-election at VUWSA had a turn out of 2.5%.
Secondly, there is a huge power imbalance between individual students and an association that has a huge financial interest in maintaining the status quo. They can fund huge campaigns to oppose a referendum where as students have no money to spend.
Also public choice / incentives: http://actoncampus.org.nz/blog/a_public_choice_analysis_of_compulsory_vs...
Finally, even if a referendum is successful, the students' association may call another whenever they want - without requiring signatures to be collected - and again, they control when the election is held. Waikato Students' Union went voluntary in a 1997 referendum but then voted to go back to compulsory in 2000. This is often used by opponents of VSM as evidence that students didn't like VSM. What they fail to mention, however, is that students at Waikato were given one day, yes one day, notice of the second referendum and that it was deliberately held in the study week break at the end of the year, when most students were away or busy. The turnout was half that of the original referendum when Waikato went back to compulsory membership.
Q: You don't have to go to university, you choose to. Isn't joining the student association just a part of that choice?
A: No, attending university entails all sorts of other things, like buying text books and travelling to classes. The university can't tell you which shop you must buy your textbooks at, or even force you to buy them at all, but people do because they value them. Equally, the university can't force you to use the bus, the train, a bike or a car to get to university, you get to choose. Just because something is related to university, doesn't meant that the two are indivisible and therefore your rights can be removed.
Q: What about the Law Society, don't we force all practicing lawyers to join that organisation?
A: No, that evil, right-wing, Labour government made the Law Society voluntary. Not in the 1980's, but in 2007!