VSM passes; N/ACT hate students, disregard constituents and evidence

We knew it was going to happen, we knew they weren’t going to listen to us, we knew they were going to ignore the mountain of evidence they were presented with, and now the country’s student’s associations are going to crumble.

Once again, I’m a few days behind on this one, due to my busy schedule (shhh… don’t tell anyone I’m on holiday).

Submissions on the bill (including mine) were overwhelmingly against it, yet they decided to press on anyway. National said they’d only support it to Select Committee to gather the opinion of the public, but when the public said they didn’t want it, they carried on anyway.

It was pushed through under the guise of human rights — freedom of association, to be precise. But the problem with their argument is that it’s wrong. The Education Amendment Act 2000 already provides students with the ability to opt out. Now, if people are finding it difficult to do so (a charge that was thrown about a lot in the last year) then the student’s associations do need a serious rap over the knuckles. But VSM will almost completely dismantle them. It’s a punishment that doesn’t fit the crime — It’s not those running the student’s associations (the executives, secretaries or managers) who suffer, but future students.

The bill comes to us courtesy of ACT, specifically Roger Douglas, later being picked up by Heather Roy (after Douglas got bored, or something). They, in all their laissez-faire ideals, argue that the associations would be able to survive if they provide a good service. But they’re not that kind of organisation. Sure, they can make money by selling tickets to events at orientation, etc., but not only will those now be far more expensive, that’s not a student’s association’s core function.

The core functions of a student’s association is providing students with representation both on university councils and nationally. Another core function is supporting the welfare if their students. To use OUSA as the closest example to me, their Student Support provides flatting advice, financial assistance (something that helped me greatly when I found that debt collectors had been unleashed upon me), a food bank, and Queer Support, among other things.

According to N/ACT, if these things are so vital, then the invisible hand will keep them afloat. Which is bullshit. How do we know? Because Australia embarked on the same VSM path a few years ago. What happened? The student associations collapsed. Almost completely. What was left was a small husk of what used to be. The executive and staff now have to spend most of their time raising funds just to keep the organisation in existence — they had little time left to actually put their limited resources to use.

But that doesn’t matter to N/ACT. Arguments won’t sway them. They have their ideology, and they’ll stick to it no matter how much evidence hits them in the face. When I presented a submission to the Select Committee last year, Roger Douglas barely looked at me. He didn’t seem at all interested in what I had to say. Maybe he wasn’t interested in acknowledging the presence of a ho-mo-sexual. Maybe he just wasn’t interested in listening to opposing arguments.

This matters for queer people. Research from Britain (research is lacking here, but our nations are similar enough that we can still draw conclusions from it) shows that student’s associations are one of the best ways of dealing with the issues that we face. While ~90% of LGB students are out with their friends at uni, almost two-thirds of them are not out to their lecturers or tutors due to fears of discrimination. They face significant levels of discrimination due to their sexual orientation from fellow students, their tutors and lecturers, and other people in their chosen faculty.

Trans students face significantly higher levels of discrimination, with almost a quarter being bullied or discriminated against.

But the discrimination doesn’t have to be overt to have serious effect.

Some LGBT students described how banal forms of negative treatment lead to stress or loss of confidence, and self−exclusion from specific spaces within the university. Students have the least ability to avoid negative treatment through self−exclusion in student halls of residence or housing, where some LGB students reported severe homophobic abuse. Such accounts perhaps contribute to explaining why 20% of LGB students and 28.5% of trans students have taken time out of their course.

[Source for this and the above stats: The experience of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans staff and students in higher education, Equity Challenge Unit, Research report 2009 (an online copy exists, but I can’t find it, as my current internet connection is poos)]

Student’s associations are amongst the most well equipped organisations to deal with these issues, and to provide safe spaces for queer and questioning students at university.

When VSM was enacted in Australia, the first things to go were women’s spaces and queer spaces. These are spaces that the invisible hand of the market can’t provide — they aren’t profitable, and many students wouldn’t have to financial means to pay for them if they were. UniQ Otago runs a free queer coffee space called Q4 every week, which a number of people have used as their first foray into being out. OUSA provides the space at no cost, and UniQ Otago is only able to stay afloat because OUSA can provide them with funding grants for certain ventures.

What annoys me the most is the political rhetoric coming out of the mouths of N/ACT. Before the last reading of the bill, there were a number of protests at universities around the country. After one of them, our Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce threatened students to “keep [their] heads down” because he thinks “most New Zealanders think students are reasonably well looked after”. That the Minister of Tertiary Education could have such a disconnect with actual students makes me think someone isn’t doing their job properly. Also, just because he thinks NZers think students are well off, doesn’t mean they actually are in reality. ([Edit to add:] Joyce left university (after failing to get into veterinary school) years before the user-pays system was introduced, so he didn’t get left with a large student loan, or have to pay enormous fees when he was studying. I like to think that if I became wealthy, I wouldn’t pull the ladder up behind me.)

He also thought it “didn’t quite add up” that students were protesting at Auckland University, as they already have voluntary membership. Translation: How does I politics? Maybe they’re protesting there because they know how bad VSM has been for them. Maybe they’re protesting where they’re located because they lack the means to move to somewhere geographically relevant. Maybe they’re protesting there because your physical location is irrelevant to legislation that affects the whole country.

What pissed me off more, is the continued insistence by ACT that it’s about human rights. At the same time that Heather Roy proclaimed victory for a “fundamental civil right – freedom of association” (which was already provided for under the old legislation) the party is trying to reintroduce John Banks to parliament — a man who voted against the Human Rights Act in 1993 (and against Homosexual Law Reform in 1986). Banks has done little since then to show any improvement. If ACT want to claim to be defenders of civil rights, they should scrupulously uphold them by not bringing back the bigots of yesteryear. (Don Brash, for example, voted against Civil Unions and in favour of legally stipulating that marriage is between one man and one woman.)

I’ll finish the same way UniQ Otago finished their* submission to the select committee:

The relatively small number of students calling for voluntary student membership is far outweighed be the minority groups who benefit greatly from the universal nature of [student’s associations]. We, in turn, happily pay for others to use the recreational and supportive facilities also provided by [student’s associations]. We are all responsible for the well being of our fellow students.

* In case anyone accuses me of sockpuppetry — I may have had a hand in writing this submission, as I was on the UniQ Otago Collective at the time.

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2 thoughts on “VSM passes; N/ACT hate students, disregard constituents and evidence

  1. Here’s the issue VSM on the idea of voluntary-ness was a good idea under some areas; but for those that are really involved i can see how this isn’t going to help. But being that i’m not involved much with clubs anymore, and nor is my family- we didn’t see too much of a problem. but there’s always issues underlaying i guess.

    • The trouble is that most of what a student’s association does isn’t visible to most people, or at least, not in a meaningful way. It’s easy for politicians to stand up and say “well, if the clubs and recreation are worth it, then people will pay for it”, but people won’t pay for support services they don’t think they’ll use, they won’t pay for all the behind-the-scenes representation; they’ll only pay for things that they can see directly affect them.

      I’m not being cynical, this happened in Australia.

      A lot of the rhetoric going around has been telling students that there will be no more Orientation events (designed to appeal to their willingness to pay for things they’ll get to enjoy). But there probably will still be Orientation, albeit in a diminished form — it’s all the other, invisible, yet far more important work that will go, and all students (not just minorities, though they’ll affected disproportionately) will suffer.

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