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Should VUWSA be Politically Neutral?

Nick Kelly



First of all – go to the VUWSA General meeting at noon in the Mount St Bar and Café on Wednesday, and support the VUWSA levy being $120. For a small rise in the levy, you get a tonne of services, advocacy, support and representation. If the levy doesn’t rise then valuable VUWSA services will be lost.
Secondly, today is your last day to get your nomination in for the VUWSA exec. Really, if you’ve ever thought about it put yourself forward. Being on the VUWSA exec gives you lots of valuable life experience in a variety of different areas and looks really good on your CV. It is also a chance to serve your fellow students and help make the university community a better place. So come to the VUWSA office and put yourself forward.
The title of this weeks President’s column is ‘Should VUWSA be politically neutral?” This argument that students’ associations shouldn’t be political and should be neutral comes up every so often, often from people not very involved with the association, but who are usually pushing a political agenda themselves. On the surface this claim may look ok. Students have a whole bunch of opinions so VUWSA should just stick to giving out the free bus tickets (which could be under threat if the levy doesn’t go up… hint hint), giving out clubs grants (again under threat) and providing the many great services it does, and keep out of politics.
However the argument about political neutrality is absolutely ridiculous in a number of ways. VUWSA’s primary role is to serve students. One of the main ways we do this is to have an elected group of students to run the association called the exec. Candidates for VUWSA usually stand on platforms and raise concerns such as “the price of beer at Eastsi…Mount St Bar is too high”, “SCS computing is of low quality”, “the university spent a million dollars on a stair case that leads nowhere and in the same month increased student fees”. These types of issues and statements are clearly political, and are said in what is surely the most political context of all – an election.
VUWSA has a number of reps on University boards, both exec members or other student reps elected at a General Meeting at the start of the year. Here VUWSA speaks out about issues relating to quality, resourcing, student workloads, and a whole host of other issues. This year Academic board passed a policy on student workload, the result of years of work by VUWSA staff and elected reps. If VUWSA had to be neutral and not political, we’d have had to turn up and abstain on this policy. When there are departments around the university who we know set workloads on students that are horrifically high – should VUWSA be neutral? Of course it shouldn’t, VUWSA should actively be calling for a better deal for students and pushing for things like the student workload policy. It’s a no brainer!
It’s the same for issues like this week’s fee setting. Today (Monday) the university is proposing an across the board 5% fee increase for all domestic students. They are applying to put fees up by a further 5% for Humanities and Social Sciences, Education, Law and Architecture and Design students. Should Students reps be neutral at today’s Council meeting? No, of course we shouldn’t. Should we be neutral when VUWSA is asked to make a submission to the Tertiary Education Commission about a possible 10% fee increase to a large number of faculties. No way!
The government’s funding for next year is budgeted to increase by 2.5%, which is lower than the CPI (Consumer Price Index, the main measure of price increases in New Zealand). So the government funding has increased slower than the rate of inflation, which in real terms means a decline in funding. The result is that the university is looking elsewhere for funding, and student fees are the easiest place to get this. Should VUWSA be neutral about government underfunding that causes course fees to increase by around $200 a year (or double that if the 10% is approved)? How could VUWSA possibly remain neutral on an issue of this importance to students?
I believe that VUWSA and other students’ associations should be democratic and driven by their members. This is what we have started towards in 2006 with our Stop Lecture meetings. These sorts of actions mean that VUWSA’s political stance on issues like fees, workload policies or other similar issues are driven by the membership of VUWSA.
VUWSA also needs to be politically independent. This isn’t the same as being neutral: VUWSA does need to take political stances on issues, be it at Academic board/local level or be it at a government level. However, it should not be aligned to any political party or take sides in the parliamentary circus.
VUWSA should provide a space for all sorts of political thoughts and ideas to be openly debated and questioned. VUWSA should continue to provide resources to political clubs on campus. It should continue to hold events like Student Representative Councils where open debates can be held. It should also support student media be it Salient or a student radio station where ideas can be contested and students given the opportunity to both learn and participate.
It’s not about VUWSA being politically neutral. It’s about our students’ association and its many and diverse members creating a mature and dynamic student community through VUWSA. VUWSA should be both democratic and engaged with what is going on in our community and wider society, and this can happen through us continuing to build an association where the membership sets the agenda.