VSM: A New, Stronger OUSA | Opinion

Critic editor Sam McChesney refreshes some fond memories of mine in his editorial of 15 July. It was about that old political hatchet of yesteryear: Voluntary Student Membership. His “where are they now” analysis of students’ associations since VSM reminds me that a lot was left unsaid, or at least unheard, by its supporters.

For instance, VSM supporters (most of them) believed that students’ associations served a public good. Former ACT MP Heather Roy couldn’t say it enough, usually with an amused grin as she debated either NZUSA’s David Do or OUSA’s Logan Edgar. But VSM supporters couldn’t shake the branding, given them by opponents, that they were destroying student institutions.

As a libertarian, I find value in social organisations such as students’ associations. It just so happens that most Otago students find value in OUSA too (regardless of partisanship). Neither VSM supporters nor opponents wanted to tear these organisations down.

So what was all the fuss about? The problem was a compulsory membership structure that allowed all sorts of stupid and arrogant things to happen. The use of association funds to donate to political parties and to support contentious causes with a minimum of support, for instance. Additionally, the tone of student politics had become severely brutalised, discouraging participation.

The situation became so bad, pre-VSM, that voter turnouts for OUSA elections were at one per cent or lower. The reason was no mystery; elected members would do whatever they wanted because their members (and their annual fees) were stuck with them. Furthermore, it was evident to many that OUSA had turned into a nursery for wannabe politicians, or just a good CV-filler. Long gone was the OUSA of student advocacy and support it was intended to be.

Now that VSM has made popular support necessary for OUSA’s survival, post-VSM candidates reach out to more than just the likely voters. And the incumbent President is more concerned about how the organisation he runs is perceived. Their manifestos and actions show a keen return to OUSA’s core purposes: student advocacy, issue awareness and student community.

Problems new and old, such as an impending long-term Service Level Agreement, will take time to iron out. In the long-run though, OUSA will be seen to have made an adjustment (albeit a noisy one) for what is a core principle of human rights: freedom of association.
This article first appeared in Issue 16, 2013.
Posted 3:59pm Sunday 21st July 2013 by Guy McCallum.