The Case For Voluntary Student Association Membership
In last week’s Salient, feature writer Nicola Kean looked at the issue of VSM – voluntary student membership. As a response to that article, this article unashamedly supports VSM and aims to explain the key ideas underlying voluntary membership.
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, as was pointed out by ACT’s Heather Roy.
Unfortunately, freedom of association does not seem to matter when it comes to tertiary students. By law, all Victoria students must become members of VUWSA. What is more you must pay an annual $120 membership fee. Though no one asked you if you believe VUWSA is doing a good job, whether you agree with the political opinions that the association promotes, or if you think that membership of VUWSA is worth $120, VUWSA is entitled to take that money off you when you enrol. If you’re sitting in a lecture right now, thinking that you’re not a member of VUWSA, you may wish to check your enrolment status!
Now at this point, someone like NZUSA’s Joey Randall is likely to jump in and say: “But! If students wanted voluntary membership, all they need to do is hold a referendum and prove that more students want voluntary than compulsory membership.” While this is a key argument put forward by proponents of compulsory membership, it makes very little sense. 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. In fact, this doesn’t just make no sense, it defies the very purpose of a right – something you should always have.
That is why Heather Roy and the ACT party have introduced their Voluntary Membership Bill. It is not about taking a choice away from students. Rather it is about giving individual students the right to choose for themselves whether they want to join VUWSA or not. Under the current law that is not possible.
At this stage we often hear: “Taxes are compulsory too and you can’t opt out of them!” While VUWSA has a president, and student politicians often appear just as inept as the real ones, VUWSA is an incorporated society, not a government. The local tennis club can’t force you to become a member and charge you $120 a year for the privilege. If you don’t believe me – ask the nearest law student to explain it to you.
VUWSA claim to represent students and to give students a voice. However, it cannot represent all students’ views by publicly declaring its support for The Alliance – as they did at the last election – and 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 agree with VUWSA and want them to represent your views, you can sign up, but you also have the chance to use your own voice and say, “No, VUWSA does not represent me!” With compulsory membership, every time VUWSA takes a position on an issue, it misrepresents some of its forced members.
It is true that you can conscientiously object to being a member of VUWSA but how many of you knew what VUWSA was when you enrolled, never mind if you were aware you could conscientiously object to it. And even if you attempt the arduous objection process, you may only do so at executive discretion and by law you do not get your money back – it must go to a VUWSA-approved charity.
So what would happen if VUWSA had to ask the student body for its $1.8 million each year, instead of just taking it? Well for a start, VUWSA would have to ask all its members what they want instead of consulting the few dozen that turn up to each meeting. Fifty people would no longer be able to force the entire student body to pay an extra $21 to VUWSA whenever they wanted. The executive might not be able to spend $5000 on massages for students, thousands of dollars on full colour adverts to promote increasing the VUWSA levy, or $4000 on psychic hotlines. The Auckland University Students’ Association is voluntary and this has led to greater transparency, an increase in services that students actually want, a full colour glossy student publication, more advocacy staff and a cheaper membership fee – for free! In Australia, where a bill similar to Heather Roy’s was recently passed into law, similar results are beginning to show.
If VUWSA is so worthwhile, as most compulsory advocates suggest, then under voluntary membership students will still want to be members. But a voluntary VUWSA would have to convince potential members of the value of membership – just like every other incorporated society must do.
Voluntary membership is about you. It’s about making sure your voice is heard instead of being hijacked by others claiming to represent you without your input or permission. Voluntary membership is about making sure you get value for money and have a student association that cares about and responds to your needs. That is why the law needs to be changed. That is why VUWSA should be voluntary.
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