Lauren Brazier: Compulsory student bodies need to join the real world

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Students have been obliged to pay for services they may not have wanted or needed. Picture / Glenn Taylor, APN
Students have been obliged to pay for services they may not have wanted or needed. Picture / Glenn Taylor, APN

No place for archaic and unfair funding system for student groups.

There are more than 10,000 incorporated societies in New Zealand. Most of these groups are funded through membership fees, fundraising and donations.

The exception is compulsory student associations. Because of an anomaly in the Education Act, these incorporated societies don't have to earn their income. Instead compulsory associations are funded by people who are forced to pay union levies if they want to study in a tertiary institution.

So unlike the Red Cross, the SPCA or the Automobile Association, compulsory student associations receive their income without any effort whatsoever.

Compulsory associations have developed a culture of entitlement. They receive unearned income, receive windfall increases as student numbers rise, and are able to raise their compulsory fees by a simple vote of 100 or so students.

For student politicians such as Dave Crampton, vice-president of Massey University's Extramural Students' Association, the defence of compulsory membership equates to a desire to defend the free money delivered by compulsion.

In 2009 his association received $612,000 from compulsory membership.

Other associations also do well out of compulsion. In 2009 the Otago University Students Association received $1.3 million from compulsion; the Victoria University Students Association took in $1.5 million.

When compulsory membership delivers free money like this it's easy to understand why student politicians don't want the goldmine to close.

Now a change to the Education Act promises to end compulsory membership. Student politicians are trying to argue that student associations should continue to receive income without any effort. So while the Salvation Army and the Red Cross have to work hard to raise funds, student politicians think compulsory unions are entitled to money for nothing.

Crampton's defence of compulsion is based on the claim that compulsory associations provide "services". This claim is unfounded. The provision of services is no basis for compulsion; the AA provides excellent services but we don't force people to join that organisation.

Secondly, most core student services such as health and counselling are provided by institutions not student associations. These services are funded by students through fees paid directly to institutions and will not be affected by the voluntary membership legislation.

Crampton claims that the introduction of voluntary membership "would lead to an immediate increase in the compulsory student services levy". Under voluntary membership tertiary councils will have the option of charging students for activities previously provided by compulsory associations.

But councils will have to decide if they want to increase the cost of tertiary education in order to fund radio stations, pay wages for political organisers or subsidise tiny numbers of students to go skiing. If institutions have doubts about imposing such costs on all students they will belatedly gain an insight into the dissatisfaction felt by thousands of students who for years under compulsory membership have had to pay for activities they don't want, use or value.

Moreover, Crampton has no way of knowing if student association activities are actually services. Under compulsion students have no choice about their purchase and many are forced to pay for services they don't want or need. If your money is wasted on an activity that has no value to you, it is not a service.

The arguments against voluntary membership are an admission that student associations are not providing students with services they want and at prices they would willingly pay. Student politicians have to understand that the nature of their organisations is about to fundamentally change. As students will no longer be forced to pay levies, associations will have to reduce their fees to levels that students will freely pay.

This will reduce associations' income and will mean that their current structure, inflated by compulsory membership, is unsustainable.

The price of membership will be key.

Voluntary associations will need to be restructured to levels that can be maintained by voluntary fees.

Student politicians know that their current fees are too high; if they fail to reduce their prices, very few students will join and membership levels will be low. If this happens it will not be caused by voluntary membership but rather by the failure of association leaders to adapt to the new reality.

A situation in which associations have to live within their means is not an onerous imposition on associations. It is merely putting associations on the same footing as other incorporated societies that need to earn income and, if they want to remain viable, cannot spend more than they earn.

Legitimate associations have an important role to play in tertiary institutions.

Instead of trying to defend an archaic and unfair funding system, student politicians should concentrate on building organisations that students choose to join.

It is time for student associations to give up the entitlement mentality, join the real world and become organisations that students want to freely join.

* Lauren Brazier is spokeswoman for Student Choice, a group promoting voluntary membership of student associations.

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