Students can choose to opt out

David Clark
David Clark
Student radio looks likely to become the first high-profile casualty of voluntary student association membership. 

Let us get the facts on the table. Students can already choose to opt out of students' association membership. Not many do. But they have the choice.

The Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) Bill, now before Parliament, puts the emphasis the other way around. Students have to opt in to their student association.

Otago University Students Association president Logan Edgar contemplates life behind bars in his...
Otago University Students Association president Logan Edgar contemplates life behind bars in his protest against the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill. Photo by Linda Robertson.
And at first blush, this might seem a reasonable proposition, until the consequences are understood. Ask graduates of other New Zealand universities.

A surprising portion wish they'd had an Otago experience. And Otago's point of difference in recent decades has been its lively and interesting student culture. Other universities shifted to voluntary student association membership long ago, and regretted it.

Sure, Otago has faced challenges with episodic symptoms of New Zealand's wider drinking problem. Sure we have got a great academic research record. But Otago is known first and foremost for its vibrancy.

Learn massage, go tramping, read The Critic, visit the capping show, or hear a live band. All of these experiences are brought to you under the umbrella of the students association.

But under the anti-student VSM legislation, funds which have hitherto supported this diversity of offerings will no longer flow. Out-of-lecture-theatre learning will cut a wan and bloodless figure.

The co-ordination and hosting of the university's clubs and societies may cease. Media that offers a student voice will be sold off.

The student gym will no longer be available to all. Student orientation activities will be cut back.

Supported by National, the Act Party's VSM Bill will undermine the students association's funding base.

This funding-base supports important facets of the Otago scarfie experience.

And without a small contribution from a large number of students, the rich offerings of university life are nolonger affordable. Choice dies.

So why will this happen? Won't students see the benefits and simply opt in?

Unfortunately, no. New students do not know what they are missing. Only with time and experience do they fully appreciate the benefit of student-run activities.

As the year progresses, the significance of friendships formed at orientation gigs, and the importance of an affordable and accessible student gym become clear. Smart students become proud of their university.

But in the early days and weeks, students follow their noses. And rightly so. They are making huge adjustments, and come with a reasonable expectation that entertainment and opportunities will be provided.

University colleges set expectations. Key text books are prescribed. The thought that you would have to opt in to any central aspect of student life would seem odd. Arriving students assume they will be automatically signed-up for the most important stuff.

And so, if membership is not prescribed, students will assume the association's activities are of a lesser value.

They will not join.

The first weeks of transition from home to university are a big deal for many students. As head of a residential college at the university, each year I see our best and brightest arrive amidst a flurry of activity, emotion and expectation.

Students arrive knowing that the most important university learning happens outside the lecture theatre. But they do not arrive with an encyclopedic knowledge of university life.

That's what they have come to discover. Nature abhors a vacuum. The VSM legislation may take away one set of healthy choices, but others will remain.

Responsibly hosted student association concerts will be replaced by alcohol-focused parties and pub events. Those that can afford it will sign up to a student gym; those that can't will hang around outside.

If Radio One ceases providing a challenging student voice, the establishment voices of commercial radio will plug the gap. If student-led services dry up, the world will not stop. But the Otago experience will be much the poorer for it.

Continual assessment is the current fashion. Students must make the most of what little time they have to pursue other interests - to become more rounded individuals, and to fully develop their personalities.

Never has there been a time when the provision of quality wider learning experiences is more desperately needed. Never has there been a time when they are more under threat.

- David Clark is the Labour candidate for Dunedin North 


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