Yesterday I read a commentary in the NZ Herald loaded with erroneous claims about the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill. It was signed by a group of student association leaders (with a strong vested interest in retention of the status quo) arguing that student association membership should be compulsory.
In fact the case for voluntary student membership (VSM) is overwhelming. The New Zealand Business Roundtable made a submission on the Bill strongly in favour of it. Without delving too deep into the issue here I thought I’d comment on a few of the glaring misconceptions in the piece (placed prominently opposite the editorial page in the Herald).
Student leaders outline what is wrong with Act’s bid to make association membership voluntary
The signatories are not student leaders, they are students’ association leaders elected by a tiny minority of students (typically 5-10%). The vast majority of students would not be able to name their association leader. A 5-10% voter turn-out does not give anyone a mandate as a leader.
The decision of National members of a parliamentary select committee to ignore tertiary institutions, students and the public by supporting an Act bill to impose voluntary student membership on students’ associations is disgraceful.
‘Impose voluntary’ is an oxymoron. Impose means being forced to do something. Voluntary is the ability to choose. This Bill would give students the opportunity to choose whether or not they want to belong to an association.
Students don’t want this. Tertiary institutions don’t want this. The committee received 4837 submissions on the bill, with an overwhelming 98 per cent opposed.
The number of submissions, for or against, is not an accurate representation of how students think. If only 5-10% of students bother to vote in the students’ association elections, you would hardly expect a tidal wave of written submissions (which aren’t compulsory like essays or association membership). You would, however, expect organised association representatives and employees with a vested interest to submit en masse. The idea that trade union membership should be made compulsory if most submissions to a select committee favoured it doesn’t pass the laugh test.
If it is a decision made on the principle of freedom of association, it is flawed. Students have less choice; they will no longer be able to come together as a universal collective.
How absurd. Under VSM, students can still join an association to come together as a collective if they choose. And when have students ever come together universally? On any issue there will be differences of opinion among students. Accordingly, under freedom of association, students can form groups, unions and associations on issues of concern of their choice.
Students’ associations nationwide work hard for students. They provide vital services such as welfare, representation and advocacy for students who cannot make ends meet, have problems with a landlord or need help resolving a grievance.
If that is the case then there is no reason why students presented with the information would not choose to join an association. Unfortunately though, student unions are often notoriously badly run – see Victoria University law student Jenna Raeburn’s excellent submission for examples.
As a direct result of the passage of this legislation, students will see an increase in costs as tertiary institutions scramble to introduce services that all stakeholders consider essential.
All stakeholders? Union leaders do not represent the views of all students who are the most important stakeholders. New Zealand taxpayers are also stakeholders because they subsidise tertiary education, and it is likely that taxpayers, and students, would consider many of the ‘services’ provided by associations as non-essential if not wasteful. For example, I understand that 70% of the 2009 VUWSA budget comprised administration costs. Furthermore, some services could be sold or contracted out and it is likely that in general costs would go down.
The current law is flexible and inclusive. It does not breach freedom of association, as students have a choice whether to join their associations, both on a collective level through a referendum and an individual level through opt-out provisions.
A collective referendum does not provide freedom of association. That would be akin to forcing all New Zealanders to join the National Party – if a majority of people voted to in a nationwide referendum. The ‘opt-out provisions’ consist of exemptions on religious or ethical grounds, but the membership fee must still be paid and goes to a charity of the students’ association’s choice – so the association still controls the membership fee. Hardly freedom of association.
All workers in New Zealand (except under exceptional circumstances eg consumer protection in the case of professions such as medicine) are rightly entitled to freedom of association, yet currently students are subjected to compulsory union membership. VSM is a no-brainer.
David Farrar blogs on this here