Thursday 22 September 2011

All Of Us - Together

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.


David said...

The egregious shadow is now cast over your own probity by this unmitigated piece of horse manure.

Conflating compulsory membership of the student union with membership of the student body is both a nonsense and more than mischief-making on your part. I had 9 years of university study and was constantly annoyed at the antics, lack of responsibility, profligace and self-indulgence of a (very) few tossers who managed to garner the votes of a very small minority of students. My focus was on raising my education level and gaining some marketable qualifications and to see the execitive of the Student Associations flinging round cash that had been taken from me without my ability to make any decisions about it was more than irksome.
The benefit to students was minimal. The ski club was self funding and operated with working bees to maintain the facilities, the rugby club was self-funding through the clubhouse beer sales. The hostel billiard tables were possibly the only facility of benefit and even those I recall were purchased because of a bequest from a past student.

So Chris, the point is that the activists have more than shat in their own nests. They have created several generations of grumpy ex students like me who would like to see nothing more than the demise of compulsory extraction from the wallets of students and their parents for no justifiable reason.

Allie said...

David, as a student who recently finished her thesis at the University of Canterbury, I would like to stick up for the UCSA and other unions like it but especially the UCSA. Post-EQ, it was the Students' Assocation that helped make efforts like the Student Volunteer Army possible. It was the UCSA that threw their creativity and hard work into making student life happier and more interesting after most of town and most of the association's facilities were closed - there was the Winter Wonderland Market every Wednesday which made campus life more vibrant and pleasant and also provided business opportunities for small businesses who had relied on venues like Cathedral Square and the Arts Centre previously. There was the Winter Carnival which helped get us through the coldest months.
I have to admit that in the past I thought the UCSA did nothing for students except organise drunken parties, in which I was very uninterested. And then later I realised how much I used their facilities, free of charge, as a member of clubs.
I am saddened that next year the new students starting their studies at UC won't have a chance to figure this out.

James McGehan said...


while Labour stategists may concur with your approval of the talents of student union leaders, to the rest of us they appear as starters in the race never to earn an honest dollar.
In my (our) day, most of the drive came from unionists who left school early, got a job, and later went back into education with WEA or similar. Merv Wellington's decision to axe support for that was a far bigger blow than anything the ACT theorists could manage. By the way, why did Labour never restore that support?
James McGehan