David Clark | Issue 6

David Clark | Issue 6

NZUSA, Loans and Governance

I recently heard a senior cabinet minister expressing contempt in parliament for what he still calls Labour’s interest-free loan “bribe”. The government hasn’t been brave enough to return interest to student loans yet. But if NZUSA collapses, an increase in your student debt may be the future reality.

NZUSA — a collective body of students’ associations across the country — is on the brink of oblivion. Otago and Victoria, two of the stalwarts, are threatening exit. I hope between them they can figure a way of continuing their collective effort in some shape or form. Longer term, I doubt very much it will be the existing one.

Frustrations with the current model have history. In buying into a collective model, students’ associations give up some degree of autonomy. From what I’ve heard, several students’ associations have felt their hands too tightly bound by an organisation they didn’t feel was genuinely reflecting their interest.

The question as to whether it matters that NZUSA exists or not comes down to the ability of the various university student association presidents to work together for the common interest of those they represent. If they are not capable of reaching across pre-existing divides to form a common front on issues of mutual interest, having NZUSA as their collective vehicle is pointless: a reminder of a bygone era where there were shared values and battles to fight. On the other hand, if the various student presidents succeed at the task of reaching across the conflicts of their predecessors, the organisation will generate value. The job of leadership in the constituent bodies is to find one or two issues of common interest. Only time will tell whether this year’s presidents are up for that and, if so, whether they can actually make it happen.

The push to retain student representation on university councils is one area where students’ associations may find common interest. Despite near unanimous opposition, the deliberate attempt to muzzle staff and student voices at university and polytechnic boardroom level looks set to be one of this government’s legacies.

Victories require long-term investment, meaning many student presidents won’t get to claim a “win” during their tenure. That may not be attractive to some. Ambitious student presidents want to make their mark. But in representing students, associations have to be robust. Not every battle will be won.

NZUSA campaigned for over a decade before winning interest-free student loans as a concession from government. If NZUSA crumbles completely, this government may just find the courage to reverse that concession.
This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2015.
Posted 3:11pm Sunday 29th March 2015 by David Clark.