Tatou,Tatou. All Of Us - Together: The Otago University Students Association's Clubs & Societies Building was built using resources contributed by thousands of students over many decades. It will likely be just one of many student assets lost to the political vandalism and ideological spite of voluntary student membership.
LONGER AGO THAN I care to compute, I made the decision to “go to varsity” and become a student. It meant becoming part of a large, complex, exciting and intensely stimulating community. There was nothing “compulsory” about the process, I could exit the university at any time. The problem was, if you weren‘t part of the university, you couldn’t be a student.
In this sense “voluntary student membership” is an oxymoron. One can no more be a “voluntary” member of the student body than one can be a “voluntary” member of the human race. You either is or you ain’t - and if you ain’t you’ve no cause for complaint.
Very soon, however, it will be possible to pretend that you both is and ain’t a member of the student body. When the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Act, making membership of students associations voluntary, takes effect in 2012, straightforward self-interest will dictate that every New Zealand university student becomes a “free rider”. If they are able to enjoy all the amenities provided and paid for by preceding generations of students, without any obligation to contribute to the general welfare of either their own or future generations - why would they do anything else?
In a surprisingly short period of time, New Zealand’s student associations will start to wither and die. For a year or two some will survive by using-up their cash reserves and selling-off their assets. But, when these resources are finally exhausted, so too will be the tradition of independent student representation in New Zealand.
Which is not to say that student representation, itself, will come to an end. Universities must have some means of managing the relationship between their administrative apparatus and the student body. One way or another, the means will be have to be found for preserving the indispensable dialogue between those who teach and those who learn.
In other words: If students associations cease to exist, it will be necessary for the university (with parliamentary assistance) to re-invent them.
Why, then, have the Act and National Parties passed the voluntary student membership legislation? If some sort of student representative structure is indispensable, and its re-constitution inevitable - why dismantle the structures already in existence?
What has led Act and National to such wanton political vandalism?
The answer to this question casts a dark shadow over the moral probity of both parties.
National understands, as perhaps the general public does not, that the nation’s students associations constitute what is undoubtedly the Labour Party’s most reliable source of talented recruits. Far more so than the trade unions, the churches or the NGOs, the students associations have developed and delivered the political talent Labour so desperately needs to remain competitive with the parties of the Right.
Grant Robertson, The Labour MP for Wellington Central, and tipped by many political commentators as a future leader of his party, won his spurs in student politics. And he’s by no means the only member of Labour’s caucus to have done so.
National knows that if the students associations are allowed to disintegrate, it will be decades before the student movement recovers sufficiently to provide Labour with the rejuvenation it so urgently needs.
Acts motivation, by contrast, is a mixture of genuine grievance and ideological rigor.
As student numbers have grown, and the financial burdens of tertiary study increased, the effectiveness and accountability of student associations has declined. Student branches of the Act Party have exposed a number of egregious lapses in both the administration of student funds, and the quality of student governance. In this respect the students associations have been their own worst enemies.
But, even if all the students associations had been irreproachable models of democratic participation and accountability, Act would still have plotted their demise. The extreme libertarian ideology of so many young Act-ivists vehemently rejects the concepts of mutuality and continuity which the student association embodies.
They are infuriated by the thought that, as human-beings, they cannot escape the realities of collectivism. That the moment they decide to “go to varsity” they enter a living community. The roots of that community extend far back into the past, even as it pushes them towards the future. Act’s ideologues refuse to accept the fact they can’t contract out of their obligations to their fellow students without damaging and devaluing the very qualities and experiences they joined the university to acquire.
During my time at university the students association erected a handsome building to house the many student clubs and societies. Beneath the plaque commemorating its opening were carved the Maori words tatou, tatou - All of us, together. The fund which paid for the building was contributed by tens of thousands of students over many decades.
It will not take that long for them to lose it.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 20 September 2011.