Students at Massey University's Albany campus, who were looking forward to Orientation Week this year, would have been disappointed. The event, usually run by the Albany Students' Association, had to be scaled back to one event on one night, and even the traditional sausage sizzle was called off. The student association's bank account couldn't afford it.
Albany Students' Association (ASA) president, Stephan van Heerden, meets The Aucklander in the newly opened student amenities centre. The fourth-year linguistics student is in his first year as president and is the self-declared captain of a sinking ship.
"I'm concerned that we won't be here come July," he says of the association, run by students for students at Massey's Albany campus.
Legislation passed last year [see below] introduced voluntary membership for students associations and means tertiary education providers no longer automatically receive membership fees for those student bodies.
Universities can inflate their student services levy, and many have, and can also contract students associations to provide services, thereby creating a source of income.
Mr Van Heerden says this means students are paying higher levy fees overall and getting less for their money.
"This year, the student services levy for a full-time student at Albany is between $500 and $600, a jump of about 60 per cent from 2011. Obviously it's a big increase but there's no increase in services for that amount."
Like almost every other students' association in the country, ASA has signed a contract with the university to provide several student services but its budget has been slashed. "We collected about $780,000 last year. The amount the university is giving us this year is less than a quarter of that," explains Mr Van Heerden.
He says under its new contract, ASA must provide advocacy services and administer the hardship fund and club grants. "And that's about a quarter of what we do as an association."
In 2010, when voluntary union fees were first mooted, David Do, of the NZ Union of Students Associations, told The Aucklander the bill threatened to wipe campus life and advocacy.
"When membership was voluntary at Waikato University and Unitec, important student services, representation and advocacy were stripped away," he said then.
That's turning out to be largely the case at Massey University Albany, a young campus that opened in 1993. To make up some of the deficit the association has introduced a $100 fee for full membership. But, while almost a third of the 7000 Albany students have signed up for the free base membership, to date only 19 have paid the $100 for full membership.
As well as voting rights at special general meetings, full members get free printing and discounts for events such as the university ball.
One of the 19 to pay is first-year business student Nicole Oelofse, who says she wants to be involved with her university as much as possible.
"I heard about ASA through orientation and saw what they offer," she says. "It makes university more than a degree, just that little bit more exciting."
The keen football player attended the ASA-subsidised university games and is enjoying the discounts. "I think $100 is definitely a reasonable ask for a year and I would sign up again next year."
She believes there is a general lack of understanding among students about what the students association does.
At any rate, on the current budget, what the ASA does is changing. Mr Van Heerden says for the association to maintain past services it would need about 4000 students to become paid members. "We anticipate we have to downsize our operation."
He has spent hours cold-calling companies in the quest for commercial sponsorship. Mostly he's met "no".
"There are not a lot of options for us. We're not a charity, the Lotteries Commission don't have much to give to incorporated societies. And, unlike many other universities, we don't have an asset base to support us."
The president and the executive will not receive honoraria this year. The events manager position is gone. The staff - accounts clerk, receptionist, general manager - have been paid to date but Mr Van Heerden says keeping all three on won't be possible on the current budget. "The staff are quite aware of the situation and have been looking for other positions. The only position that stands to be paid is the advocacy co-ordinator."
Across town at the city's two older universities, things are less grim but there are still difficult decisions to make.
Kizito Essuman is president of Auckland Student Movement (AuSM), AUT's students association. He feels, given the circumstances, his organisation has managed to establish itself well for the year.
It has reached an agreement with AUT that will allow AuSM to provide input into how the Learner Services Levy is distributed. That will allow the student movement to be part of a Student Services Advisory Committee that will report to the vice chancellor. The committee is a 50/50 split between university staff and AuSM representatives. Mr Essuman says AuSM also has a contract to provide services, including student advocacy and legal information, student media and the Student Job Search service, all of which bring in income.
"Every student enrolled at AUT has access to those services and we also provide extra services for members."
These include a foodbank, orientation gigs, social sport activities and discounts on goods and services.
Though AuSM has some reserve funds and assets with which to fund these extras, overall the association is losing almost half its annual revenue. Mr Essuman says even careful restructuring won't be enough.
"Now we have to cut down some of our services and facilities and, as part of that, we have to look at our staffing levels. We've got a few years to survive, unless we get contracted to provide more services."
More than a third of AUT's 17,400 full-time students have signed up as AuSM members.
"It proves the point that students want AuSM to be their voice and that's our strength," he says. "That's what we're using to try and get the university to give us more."
He says the new voluntary union fee system gives universities too much power. "I think students should have been the ones to decide through a referendum. For it to have been decided at the Beehive was too much."
Auckland University Student Association president Arena Williams feels the change means universities now have the upper hand in negotiations with student associations.
"It's now more like us working for the university to provide services the university thinks students need."
Uniquely, AUSA membership has always been voluntary. This year Ms Williams estimates around 18,000 students have joined up, compared to 16,000 last year. The students association at Auckland has always been partly funded by the university but that has dropped from $700,000 in 2011 to $427,000 this year. AUSA is contracted to provide advocacy and welfare services and to run some social events.
Ms Williams says income from students association assets such as bFM, a bookshop and a cafe is not enough to maintain the status quo.
"We've seen changes this year already. We've lost staff but, hopefully, within the next couple of years we'll have a model that we can sustain. We're tentatively positive about a good relationship with the university but obviously that comes at the cost of our independence."
Back at Massey, Mr Van Heerden is working to raise student awareness about what a good student association can provide and what it will take for it to survive the year.
He wonders if ASA has a future in the new building it fiercely advocated for. Right now there's an empty retail space in the building, which the university has offered ASA as a business opportunity. Unlike Auckland it doesn't have its own bookshop, which may be a logical income stream but, without money to pay to kickstart something, he says ASA will have to let the opportunity slide.
This year, the Massey association spent $7000 on orientation, down from $30,000 in 2011. That meant only one event in the evening, which was hosted by a club, and no traditional sausage sizzle.
"I think that was noticed but, overall, students don't know what voluntary student membership has led to," says Mr Van Heerden. "Any event that we plan from now on we simply have to break even. The last thing I want as the president of a student association is to have to ask students for more money."
Voluntary student association membership:
The Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill, authored by ex-ACT MP Heather Roy, was passed in September last year. Commonly referred to as the Voluntary Student Membership Act, the law gives all students enrolling on or after January 1, 2012 the option of joining a student association or not.
Those in favour of the bill called on the importance of freedom of association, pointing out students were the only members of our society in compulsory unionism. Those against said it would cost students more, lead to a reduction in services and cause students to lose their voice.
Services provided by students associations include:
Advocacy and mediation services
Media: print, radio and social media
Student job search
Sports and hobby clubs
Organisation of university games
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