Dave Crampton: Students losing control over university services they fund

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Tertiary institutions could choose to increase the student-services levy and pass funding on to students' associations - or a non-student led service provider. Photo / Thinkstock
Tertiary institutions could choose to increase the student-services levy and pass funding on to students' associations - or a non-student led service provider. Photo / Thinkstock

Concern is growing among students and tertiary institutions after the National Party's decision to actively support legislation to impose voluntary membership of students' associations, and to front another bill that will allow the Tertiary Education Minister to control the mix of student-funded services provided by tertiary institutions.

Rather than finding a pragmatic solution to Act MP Heather Roy's member's bill to next year force voluntary membership of students' associations by tertiary students, National appears hell-bent on fostering an ideological solution to a problem that does not exist.

This legislation can only be heard on members' days every second Wednesday but could be passed as early as next month, barring urgency. This would lead to an immediate increase in the compulsory student-services levy, which funds services such as health, counselling and student-learning support.

While Mrs Roy believes students should not be compelled to fund student associations, she said last week that they should continue to be compelled to fund the advocacy, representation and services they provide - as long as students' associations don't get the money directly.

Tertiary institutions could choose to increase the student-services levy and pass funding on to students' associations - or a non-student led service provider. This makes services, advocacy, and representation even less representative or non-existent, while still compulsorily student-funded.

It is possible that Mrs Roy's bill, which affects fee setting by student associations, may not pass before the election - and given that fee setting at some tertiary institutions is contingent on student associations setting membership fees, tertiary institutions may be unable to accurately set fees for next year in this uncertain legislative environment.

Institutions already use the student-services levy to plug underfunding to get around the fee maxima, which only applies to tuition fees. At the University of Canterbury, where there is no fee for student-association membership, student-services levies increased 600 per cent last year.

If levies do not rise further as a result of a voluntary student-association membership environment, core services that students rely on will disappear - as they did in Australia after similar legislation was passed.

Students may not have a say in where their money goes, what services are provided or who provides them - but neither may some universities next year.

A further bill that had its second reading in Parliament last week will give the Tertiary Education Minister authority to dictate what mix of services tertiary institutions may provide - whether students or tertiary institutions like it or not.

Whole services could fall through the gaps if the minister inclines. This is not good law-making. As it is students who fund both students' associations and services that tertiary institutions provide to students, it is ironic that they are shut out of political decisions on services they are forced to fund and that affect them directly.

Students' associations are calling on National to rationally agree to extend the transition period of the bill on voluntary student membership past the effective date of January 1, 2012 - and to make legislative provision for meaningful student representation and student-led advocacy.

Student associations are best placed to provide services and representation, as they have done for many years. Mrs Roy believes that student associations should be more representative - yet her bill will gut their ability to represent students.

So next year if students have a problem with their university lecturer and seek advocacy, they may have to go to the tertiary institution which will then listen to and defend their employee's position. And students will be funding the outcome.

It's a little like taking someone to court and paying the defence lawyer to also state your case in front of a judge, who so happens to be his employer.

* Dave Crampton is the vice-president of the Massey Extramural Students' Society, which has more than 16,000 members nationwide.

- NZ Herald

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