New Bill will threaten New Zealand’s student unions

By Ralph Marnham

A new government bill has been given the green light by a select committee in the New Zealand’s parliament. The Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill was proposed by Heather Roy, an MP with the ACT New Zealand political party, and has the backing of the majority National party.

Roy has argued that “tertiary students are currently compelled to join a student association if they want to study and are the only people who are forced to join a union, although many of these associations don’t actually represent the views of the majority of students.” She also stated that “in many cases student organisations undertake partisan political activities against the views of the wider student body, and waste student resources.”

This view has come under attack by student leaders who argue that government support for the bill will put tertiary education in jeopardy. In a statement published in the New Zealand Herald, the New Zealand Student Union Association (NZUSA) labelled the bill a “disgrace”. They argued that “Students, the key stake holders, will be sidelined because their voice will not be clear and strong.”

They also warned that institutions will now be receiving many competing messages from students and without clear signals will look towards the government for funding priorities. They pointed out that there are many other ways of changing membership rules that would allow students real choice without preventing students coming together as a universal collective.

The Union finished its statement with the dire warning that “we will have a tertiary system that cannot contain its rising fees, fails to offer student services that respond to their needs and cannot provide some of the courses that it advertises.”
Some student union executives point to the case of Auckland University in Australia. When membership was made voluntary, the association fee income fell by a staggering 95 percent. This forced the Australian government to spend 120 million dollars of “transitional support” to maintain key services.

The bill and the student union’s reaction have been greeted with a mixed response in New Zealand. The following week, the New Zealand Herald published an editorial criticising the reaction of the NZUSA. They argued that “their view overstates the importance of the student unions in providing services to their members, as opposed to the input of the universities and polytechnics.” They pointed out that the NZUSA had paid no heed to the fundamental question underlying the bill: why does compulsion to join the union still remain?

They also asked why a student association had the right to take students’ money, even though students might disagree strongly with its viewpoint and policies. The newspaper finished by suggesting that if the unions were providing adequate services then they had nothing to worry about.

However, an education spokesman for the New Zealand Labour party, Grant Robertson warned that “voluntary membership would destroy representation, advocacy and services students received from their associations.”

He went on to say that student associations would struggle which would in turn reduce the quality of student experience. The Green party also warned that the long-term survival of the unions were under threat. A crucial second reading of the bill is planned for the middle of the month.