Student groups lobby to keep compulsory membership

Student groups and their supporters are gearing up to tackle ACT MP Sir Roger Douglas's bid to outlaw compulsory membership of student associations, saying such a move would "gut" them.

The Save Our Services campaign was launched today by student unions, hoping to gather opposition to Sir Roger's Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill.

They are backed by the Quality Public Education Coalition, the Tertiary Education Union, the Council of Trade Unions, the national Maori student body Te Mana Akonga, the Victoria University gay support group UniQ and Rural Women NZ.

Currently about 240,000 tertiary students must join their institution's student association and pay between $60 and $120, which is collected as part of the institutions' fees.

However, Sir Roger Douglas's private members bill seeks to change the law so students can't be compelled to join an association.

Sir Roger maintained he had nothing against the associations but drew up the Bill on the principal that "no individual should be forced to fund any association at the whim of the majority".

Coalition spokesman Joe McCrory said the Bill would strip funding away from the essential services the associations provided.

They fear that paying membership fees would be a low priority for cash-strapped students and their membership and funding would be crippled.

It would devastate services such as welfare and academic advocacy, student representation, legal help and harm the quality of tertiary education, Mr McCrory said.

Without associations the universities would see a massive increase in low level inquiries from students, and they would have to divert funds to cope with that, he said.

Voluntary membership would cost the Government more, he said.

In Australia, a similar transition from compulsory to voluntary membership needed a $120 million fund.

The Australian experience with voluntary membership showed services were devastated, he said.

Voluntary membership had been tried at Unitec, Waikato and Auckland universities but two of them had since voted to go back to compulsory membership.

The Auckland University Students' Association was the only one in the country that had voluntary membership.

However, Mr McCrory said the association was run down and while it got funding help from the university, it could lose that "at the stroke of a pen".

About half of the university's 40,000 students were still members, although membership was free.

The coalition believes the current law is flexible and allows for choice.

Tertiary institutions can conduct a referendum to decide whether membership of an association should be compulsory, if a referendum is petitioned by 10 percent of enrolled students.

The decision was then reached on a majority vote of those taking part in a referendum.

Sir Roger's Bill passed its first reading in September last year and public submissions on the bill close at the end of this month, before it goes to a select committee.


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