Student associations fill key role

Norman Kingsbury argues that students' associations have proved invaluable in the past and should not be lost.

There is yet another Bill before Parliament - this time from Sir Roger Douglas himself - which seeks to make membership of students associations entirely voluntary.

Although the introduction to the Bill says that it does not seek to damage or limit students associations, it would undoubtedly do so.

Effectively, it would destroy the capacity of most associations to offer student services, to be advocates for individual students, and to do the research necessary for adequate student participation in the decision-making of universities and other tertiary education institutions.

In terms of public policy, the New Zealand Union of Students Associations (NZUSA) has been one of the most effective contributors to policy in tertiary education.

Its capacity to continue would be seriously undermined if Sir Roger's Bill is passed.

The issues have been debated a number of times in the last 20 years and the current situation is a workable compromise.

In essence, it leaves the matter to student referendums and the decisions of each institution.

It is in each institution that the decision should lie.

It is not a matter for Government fiat.

In a learning institution, it is difficult to maintain the idea of community when student and staff numbers are large.

But the traditional idea of a student being part of a learning community is an important idea and needs to be fostered.

The students associations, which are institution-wide, play an important role in all this.

Fraternities and sororities are not a desirable alternative, based as they often are on wealth, gender, and race.

In most tertiary education institutions, the students associations play an important role in decision making.

They provide a readily available means of canvassing student opinion.

They are the means by which students can be consulted.

They can provide an important element in assurance of academic quality and definition and administration of student discipline.

Without this structure of consultation, our institutions would be much more prone to sit-ins and other student disruption.

What is true at the local level is even more true at the national level, where NZUSA makes an ongoing and readily available channel of communication for Government and national agencies.

Students associations have a great record of initiative in the establishment and maintenance of student services: student welfare services, student health and counselling, services for students with disabilities, Student Job Search, cafeterias, volunteer graduate employment (a precursor to Volunteer Service Abroad), and so on.

They have been strong in encouraging Maori participation and in widening access more generally.

They were often leaders in pressing for new academic developments, such as the teaching of Te Reo, New Zealand content in courses, Maori studies, Pacific studies, New Zealand's role in the world, to name just a few.

In the wider society, they have been active against discrimination based on gender, race, and sexual orientation.

When a student joins a learning institution, they pay a community fee.

It is akin to paying local body rates or taxes to Government.

It is a price we pay in order to be part of the community.

To continue in the tradition of all the valuable things that NZUSA and local associations have done over the years - and to ensure a useful contribution in the future - the associations need a reasonably predictable income.

The proposed Bill would destroy that.

In that case, who would sponsor the associations? Political and religious groups come to mind.

But even more likely are the tobacco, alcohol, and fast food industries.

Naturally enough, well-to-do sponsors use their money to promote their own interests.

We need students associations who can act in the interest of their members without an anxious eye on sponsors.

Sponsorship is no substitute for independent funding of the sort that is at present possible.

Norman Kingsbury was NZUSA vice-president in 1955 and has since had a long and distinguished career in education.

He was appointed chief executive of the New Zealand Qualifications Authority in 1999 and chair of the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission in 2000.

 

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