VSM (Voluntary Student Membership) officially EDUCATION (FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION) AMENDMENT BILL

The recent law change to prohibit compulsory membership of student associations will have a very negative effect on the social services these associations have historically provided.  In particular, from our perspective, they will almost certainly be forced to curtail the support and advisory services available to young people ‘coming out’ at a particularly vulnerable time when they may be living away from home for the first time and in a strange city where they need all the help and support they can get.

We were approached by the Queer Officer of the VUW Student Association, asking us to oppose this Member’s Bill currently in select committee. It was introduced by ACT in the name of Sir Roger Douglas. It basically allows students to opt out of contributing to a students association, in the name of freedom of association. The Board decided to send a submission opposing the Bill. As we had only about three days to do this before the closing date, there was no time to consult with the membership, but we hope the text below clearly shows our reasoning for opposing this Bill, and why in particular we believe it would harm the interest of LGBTI students:

“This submission is by Rainbow Wellington which is a regional group representing the interests of gay and lesbian people and those of related sexual orientation. One of our roles is to take an interest in legislation which affects our members and potential members. We number several M P s across the spectrum of parties among our vice patrons.

We are opposed to this Bill.

This is because its net effect will be the loss of some choices available to students in the form of support services. Students are notoriously and perennially short of money, and if given the opportunity to not pay for a service they will take the option not to do so for obvious reasons. Previous experience has demonstrated that if they do not have to pay for their student association membership they will not do so to the extent that their student organisations will be severely underfunded or will collapse altogether. This will have the effect of preventing them from delivering a range of support services to students.

At most tertiary institutions there is a focus organisation for gay and lesbian students operating through the student association. Those of such orientations most typically declare themselves publicly in late adolescence, often during a period when they are attending an educational institution at a distance from their family or other supportive friends. It is well known that ‘coming out’ in what can be a hostile environment is sometimes fraught with problems and difficulties, and one of the roles of various university student organisations is underwriting support groups for such students.

This is a role which is best performed by the peers of those who need its services and is not a role which can be readily played by other university services. If the ability to service such support groups is lost by declining membership and resources this role will be lost to the considerable detriment of the young people involved. We would regard this as a serious retrograde step.

We are also concerned to see such service groups survive because they are one of our own contact points with the next generation of gay and lesbian men and women and by maintaining such a contact we can ensure that when their university/ tertiary education is over they continue to know of and have access to further groups which can offer support and assistance as well as a social context during their transition to their full adult life. 

We see much of this positive work put at risk if this legislation is passed, when there is no necessity or public demand for it and it appears to be driven purely by ideological considerations which are largely alien to the New Zealand way of life.

We do not request to appear before the Committee in support of our views but would be happy to do so if the Committee should wish it.”

A few days later there was a good letter in the DomPost, which pointed out the results of such legislation in Australia. Basically, the students unions all closed down and the Universities were forced to take on many of their duties. As they did not have the funds to do so, they had to cut courses as a result of these new responsibilities. As a result, a Bill is now going through the Commonwealth Parliament in Canberra allowing Universities to charge a levy on students for these services. So the students will have progressed from membership of a student body (which they can opt out of) in which they had a democratic say, to a compulsory levy over which they have no control. That really looks like democracy in action.

However, in spite of the fact that this is clearly a dogmatic ACT Bill, the National Party also supports it, and the Bill is currently going through willy nilly. A rearguard action by the National Union of students is not proving effective. The Labour Party has promised to reverse the legislation.

We support the minority report and hope that a change of government will help support stronger Students' Associations.