Keith Ng has a good post (apart from the unnecessary swearing) at Public Address about the VSM changes.  Most particularly: students in general just don’t care either way.  (Note that although most people use “university”, I’m using “institution” here, because it’s not just universities that this is relevant to).

I have mixed feelings about voluntary student membership.  In general, I much prefer the idea that students get to choose whether they are members – I would hate to be forced to join an employment union.  However, I was Vice-President of the Students’ Association for a year, and I know that at least some of the work that they do is very valuable, unlikely to be done by anyone else, and with apathetic students extremely difficult to get members to voluntarily sign up (even with great marketing, and great reasons, and a lot of work).

I attended Massey Albany in the early years; when I started there there wasn’t a students’ association specifically for Albany, just membership in MUSA (the Palmerston North based association).  I remember attending the meeting where we voted on creating a separate association specifically for Albany (in my first year, I think, and not because I cared in those days, but because I was in the hostels and we got dragged to anything that needed numbers).

My experience therefore is with a very young organisation, at a young, fairly small, campus.  I’m sure that the well-established associations at the large institutions work quite differently (we did have some contact with them, but not enough to get a sense of how things actually are – and this is over 10 years ago now).

VSM was a big deal in my day too.  Waikato had gone voluntary and basically fallen apart, and there was the big vote about whether we should be voluntary or not.  The only association I recall going voluntary at that time was Auckland University’s.

Often one of the arguments against compulsory student membership is that the association is used as a political vehicle for views that students do not necessarily share. One of the aspects of the executive committee in my year as VP that I particularly liked was that the political views of the members of the committee ranged from ‘left’ to ‘right’. My political views (at the time at least!) were fairly opposite to the President’s, but we worked well together and the range (also of other members) meant that we association wasn’t pushing generic political agenda – we wanted students making informed decisions of their own, and to provide services that we believed were of general benefit to the student community.

It’s unfortunate that this isn’t always the case.  However, the apathetic nature of students makes it easy to change this.  Get a couple of hundred students together to vote in someone that has similar views to yourself, and you’ll end up with either (a) a nicely diverse group, or (b) vast numbers of students voting (highly unlikely).  It’s possible that the result of a diverse group is just endless bike-shedding and bickering, but also possible that you get a great politically neutral group of leaders.

At the time (possibly still) Albany was a campus with students unusually focused directly on course work.  There were more ‘mature’ students (with existing lives to get back to), local students (who had an existing local community), and students that were simply uninterested in anything on campus other than classes (in many cases, even those!).  There was no large group of young students who moved to the area to attend the university, who are often the most active group on campus in terms of extra-curricular activities.

This was a particular challenge.  The ‘traditional’ roles of a student’s association, for example, include a lot of activities that simply weren’t of interest to these students.  The question we repeatedly faced was whether it was our role to offer them to those students that did want them (and thereby foster on-campus life), or whether it was more appropriate to recognise that our students didn’t actually want us to do these things.

The two most obvious examples were Orientation (from the students’ association point of view, more a giant party than anything else) and the student bar (Scholars’ – later sadly renamed to something I can’t remember).  I personally have extremely fond memories of my early university days that involve Orientation and the bar – but I know that only a small proportion of students attended Orientation or regularly used the bar, and yet their association fee supported both.

(In theory, both of these could make a profit or at least break even, and so the cost would be less of an issue.  However, even without the cost, there’s a lot of time involved and that’s time that the association could be using elsewhere).

Many of the functions that the association provides could move to the institution.  For example, handling disputes (academic grievances) typically involves a representative from the association.  I was involved with these both making a complaint myself (I didn’t use a rep) and representing other students who had problems with staff. This honestly is a difficult process: the staff member is likely to be combative (given that things have escalated to this point), even when they are wrong.  It’s scary and complicated and it really does help to have someone that knows the system there to help you.

Most institutions already have mentor and support staff who could take over this role; many of these are or were students themselves.  They might even do a better job (being properly paid and not subject to elections) than a student representative.  Cases where they wouldn’t be able to be unbiased enough to support the student would be rare.

In my time, members of the executive committee handled this job.  It probably would have been better as a paid non-elected position (we had a restructuring plan that would have made this so, but it was discarded by the next executive). This is probably more ideal than the employer being the institution, but I doubt it would make much difference in the vast majority of cases.

Similar to this was the ‘welfare’ role: basically giving grants to students with financial hardship.  This absolutely should have been a paid position (again we planned to do this: I think it did get done at some point in the last decade). Again, I think that the institution could take over this role (they’re already involved in giving out money) without much difficulty.

I do wonder what is gained in the scenario where the bulk of the work done by students association (with essentially compulsory funding) is simply moved to the university (with compulsory funding).  The cost will increase (because student representatives generally work for pitiful amounts of money), bureaucracy will increase, and the service might get a little worse.  Students still end up paying the same amount (if not more), it’s just a different bunch of people signing the checks.  With these apolitical roles, why would students care who ran these services, as long as they were available?

(To be truly voluntary, you’d switch to a ‘user-pays’ model, where you pay for assistance with academic grievances, and some of your hardship grant would go to paying for the person that organised it; if you didn’t use these services you wouldn’t pay anything.  I like ‘user-pays’ for a lot of things, but this sounds awful to me).

The “student press” is often cited as a loser in this change.  In my day, our executive resurrected the student paper, and although it wasn’t a huge success (and there were certainly lots of issues that arose from it) it served a useful function and I think it was the right thing to do.  It did cost a lot of money, although in theory this could also be something that broke even.

A lot has changed with the media in the last decade.  It’s already possible for any student to easily have a public voice – they don’t need to be published in the student paper to do so.  I don’t really know what “student press” have to offer that students can’t do for themselves (more-or-less for free) if they’re interested.  The largest cost of the paper in my time was the wages: realistically waged writing positions are dying everywhere.

If a group of students (within the students’ association or not) created a (predominately online) publication that was worth reading, then advertising (much easier to organise online than in print) would pay something towards their time.  If they were extremely good then there would be real money (there are plenty of independent writers earning a reasonable or good living).

Doing actual journalistic work (rather than opinion pieces, comics, fluff pieces, reprinting news, etc) is valuable and takes significant effort.  The “student press” is likely to struggle to still do this – but publications everywhere are struggling to still do this.  When someone figures out a solution, the students can use it like everyone else.  In the meantime, surely at least the journalism students would like to have a vehicle for their work?

Other than advocacy, welfare, campus life, and the press, the main activity in my day was supporting clubs & societies (a branch of campus life, I guess).  In my year, the university also had employees responsible for this, and we worked alongside them.  We did a better job than they did, probably because we cared more and were ‘closer to the ground’, but I know that wasn’t the case every year (on average, the university employees probably did a better job).

Clubs were difficult because of the nature of students at Albany (as above).  It takes effort to start a club and help from someone (both in organisation and money) really does help.  If people aren’t interested enough to do it on their own, does that mean it’s not worth doing?  I think that someone should provide some assistance, but not a lifeline (if there just isn’t interest, then it has to die). Like welfare and grievances, it doesn’t really matter who provides this assistance.  Given that institutions are very competitive with each other (a separate problem!) showing that you have a great campus life, with many thriving clubs, is probably marketable enough that it’s worth doing.  Once a club is going, it really doesn’t need the association for much, though.

Personally, I think my ideal would be voluntarily membership where the default is to be a member (i.e. voluntary opt-out).  This way the students that just don’t care either way get the benefits, but anyone that wants to save the (generally very low) membership fee or has some sort of political opposition can just untick a box when enrolling at the institution.  Around the box would be two ads – one from the Students’ Association explaining how you get great value for money, and one (from ?) arguing the opposite point of view.

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