The future of university and polytech student associations - the focus of student life for decades - was looking uncertain last night after the Act Party's bill making membership of them voluntary passed into law.

Heather Roy's Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill passed with the support of National and United Future after days of student protests. Labour has pledged to repeal it when it returns to Government.

Before the bill received its third reading around 100 students gathered on Parliament's forecourt to offer a last-minute display of opposition.

Led by NZ Union of Students' Associations co-president David Do, the protest called on Prime Minister John Key to "Kick the bill, don't pass it".

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NZUSA argues the legislation will "undermine independent representation on campus and put important student services at risk".

The Herald understands a number of students' associations are unprepared for the steep drop in membership and revenue likely to result from voluntary membership next year.

Labour MP Grant Robertson said students' associations had been assured by National MPs that the new law would not be passed before the election and therefore would not take effect next year.

Mr Robertson acknowledged that expectation was also probably fuelled by his party's delaying tactics as they spoke at great length and detail about the relatively inconsequential Royal Societies Bill which precedes it on Parliament's order paper.

Mr Robertson's colleague and Labour tertiary education spokesman, David Shearer, said the bill, advanced by "ideologues", would "crush" student associations and, to cheers from the protesters, said Labour would repeal it in the event it returned to Government.

But any prospect of a last-minute change of mind by the Government was quickly quashed by Tertiary Education Minister Steven Joyce who said his Government had "moved quite significantly" to counter concerns about the loss of services with new compulsory student services levies arrangements.

That allowed universities and polytechs to charge students for services which may otherwise have been provided by student associations, but limits the range of services they may provide.

Asked whether the Government was supporting the bill to stick it to Labour, many of whose top ranking MPs got their start in politics at student associations, Mr Joyce said he was unaware of that.

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Labour had hoped to reach a compromise arrangement with National which would see students continue to be automatically enrolled as members of their student associations but would allow them to opt out and have their fees refunded.

However, that had been rejected by National with Mr Robertson putting that down to a "dodgy deal" between National and Act to "prop up an imploding and ineffective Act Party".

Ms Roy savoured her triumph yesterday, saying the bill restored a "fundamental civil right - freedom of association".

Ms Roy said students' associations had become increasingly politicised in recent decades and were blighted by misappropriation of funds.

She ended her speech by quoting former student politician, unionist and fast-rising Labour Party star Andrew Little:

"I believe voluntary unionism - true freedom of association - gives the union movement much greater strength and a much greater moral authority."