Third of campuses opt out of compulsory student union fees

May 28, 1999

Controversial legislation has led students in a third of New Zealand's universities and polytechnics to throw out compulsory membership of their student unions.

Student union leaders, however, have claimed the outcome as a limited victory as they believed the private members' legislation - which forced every institution to hold a referendum on voluntary student membership - was stacked against them.

Students at 11 of the 24 polytechnics voted for voluntary membership. In the university sector, students at five universities - Otago, Lincoln, Canterbury, Victoria and Massey - voted to retain compulsory membership.

Students at the University of Waikato, which until now had the country's only voluntary student union, voted to stay voluntary, and in a surprise move, the country's largest university, Auckland, voted by a slim margin also to go voluntary. The four colleges of education, specialising in teacher training, all voted to stay compulsory.

John Barkess, president of the national Aotearoa Polytechnic Students Union, said it was a victory for students as the "whole referendum was loaded against us". This was because of a number of factors: changes to the student loan scheme this year meant students could not use their loans to pay association fees; the legislation made institutions print on the ballot form the amount students would be refunded if they voted for voluntary membership; and student politicians were unable to use union fees to campaign on the benefits of compulsory membership unless they gave equal money to a campaign for voluntary membership.

The government MP behind the bill, Tony Steel, has claimed that this requirement was breached, but this has been dismissed by the president of the national University Students' Association, Karen Skinner, as "rubbish".

Ms Skinner said the loss of the country's largest student union to voluntary membership would weaken the national federation's voice and mandate as it went into an election year. "I guess that's what the legislation was designed to do," she said.

Overall, there appeared to be no pattern to the voting, with a number of small, rural polytechnics voting for compulsory membership while a number of large, urban campuses went voluntary. Turnout ranged between 28 per cent and 60 per cent, with the largest turnouts at universities with the most politically active and established associations, many of which hold major assets.

Unions have traditionally operated a range of services, including cafeterias, student newspapers and health care, along with playing advocacy and lobbying roles. In recent years, student political activity has focused on the rising cost of education.

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