Student leaders: Govt support for bill puts tertiary education in jeopardy

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Student leaders outline what is wrong with Act's bid to make association membership voluntary

Photo / Mark Mitchell
Photo / Mark Mitchell

The decision of National members of a parliamentary select committee to ignore tertiary institutions, students and the public by supporting an Act bill to impose voluntary student membership on students' associations is disgraceful.

It will put students' services, representation and their education at major risk. Should it be passed, Act's Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill will jeopardise the quality of the education environment and the student experience by removing the very mechanism that exists to provide these services.

It will end accountable and effective representation and destroy the student support, independent advocacy and welfare standards that students have. Every student will bear the brunt of this. Our politicians don't seem to care that there will be a huge reduction in services and a loss of a student voice in universities and polytechnics throughout the country.

Institutions will receive diverse messages from students and without clear signals will look to the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) for funding priorities.

Students, the key stakeholders, will be sidelined because their voice will not be clear and strong. Future tertiary services will be driven by the minority funder, exactly the behaviour the proponents of this bill oppose.

Students don't want this. Tertiary institutions don't want this. The committee received 4837 submissions on the bill, with an overwhelming 98 per cent opposed.

Some National representatives on the select committee appeared to have made up their minds to endorse the bill before submissions were even considered.

If it is a decision made on the principle of freedom of association, it is flawed. Students have less choice; they will no longer be able to come together as a universal collective.

There are ways of changing the membership rules that will allow students real choice but National members have chosen to ignore these solutions. It would appear that their intent is to silence the collective voice of students and drive student services towards a model where the TEC has primary influence.

Students' associations nationwide work hard for students. They provide vital services such as welfare, representation and advocacy for students who cannot make ends meet, have problems with a landlord or need help resolving a grievance.

The New Zealand Union of Students' Associations provides training and support to assist students' associations in improving their operations.

As a direct result of the passage of this legislation, students will see an increase in costs as tertiary institutions scramble to introduce services that all stakeholders consider essential.

The Government will be removing services that help with success just as they begin to penalise institutions for poor success and completion results. Meanwhile, students will be bearing the brunt as they will be paying more than ever to get a degree.

Universities will further increase levies for student services as a direct result of this legislation but students will have no say on how high the fee is set or where the money goes.

Some universities have increased this levy by more than 300 per cent in the past couple of years. On top of this, performance measures and capped student numbers are also driving fee rises.

We have seen universities closing their doors unexpectedly because of threats of penalties by the Tertiary Commission for going over their student cap.

So we will have a tertiary system that cannot contain its rising fees, fails to offer students services that respond to their needs and cannot provide some of the courses it advertises.

The current law is flexible and inclusive. It does not breach freedom of association, as students have a choice whether to join their associations, both on a collective level through a referendum and an individual level through opt-out provisions. Therefore, it allows for a variety of forms of membership, which most students are happy with.

Students deserve to retain the quality advocacy and representation that students' associations provide.

* Signed by Dave Crampton, vice-president, Massey Extramural Students' Society; David Do, co-president, New Zealand Union of Students' Associations; Ralph Springett, president, Massey Extramural Students' Society; Elliot Blade, president, Auckland University Students' Association; Rawa Karetai, president, Albany Students' Association.

- NZ Herald

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