Opinion Piece: On The Upcoming OUSA Referendum

A few years back, when the government was pushing through Voluntary Student Membership (VSM), students’ associations across the country were being slammed as leftwing fringe groups. Students’ associations, it was claimed, had no business making political statements on behalf of students who were forced to join, especially when barely 15 percent even voted for their executives. Just look at the number of former student politicians filling the Labour benches. Careerist hacks, the lot of them, suckling from the electorate’s teat. Disgusting. Shush, nobody mention where Paula Bennett got her start.

The response from OUSA and most of its peers was, basically, to roll over and play dead. They promised not to say mean leftwing things again, they emphasised that, really, they were service providers and would stick to their core role of organising Shapeshifter gigs and keeping their mouths shut. Cool, said the government. Thanks. We’re still passing VSM though. Most students’ associations lost over half of their revenue; control of key services passed to universities, and students found that, once again, they were left paying more for less. To add insult to injury, OUSA and others continued to keep their mouths shut, to avoid similar treatment in future.

The upcoming referendum gives us a chance to tell OUSA to unstick its gums and find its political voice again. The question, “Should OUSA support a change of government at the 2017 general election?”, needs to be answered yes.

Many of you will be voting for National or ACT this September. That’s cool. There are valid reasons to do so. In fact, given how little you as a student will benefit from a National-led government, these reasons are likely idealistic ones, and therefore all the more laudable. But OUSA is not here to reflect the ideological beliefs of its members; OUSA is here to represent the interests of students.

Whatever National’s merits, the simple fact is that over the past nine years it has not prioritised tertiary education, and its policies have squeezed students. Allowances and living costs from Studylink have failed - by a long way - to keep up with the cost of living. Renters have been hit hard by a housing crisis whose very existence the Prime Minister has denied. Postgrad students have lost access to the allowance. Fees have gone up by the maximum every year to compensate for a lack of funding. Academic staff are being laid off. University councils have been stacked with government appointees. And most universities, including Otago, have fallen in the international rankings. On the plus side, the Young Nats got lots of selfies with John Key.

A yes vote in this referendum is not going return us to the bad old days. Hugh Baird is not some shouty hairy socialist loon looking for a soapbox. In fact, I suspect Hugh doesn’t actually want this referendum to pass - which shows that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. If OUSA doesn’t stand up for the student body for fear of upsetting some right-wing members, then whose beliefs are really holding sway?

We’re all happy for OUSA to run the food bank and the advocacy service. Going hungry, or getting screwed by the university, can have a big impact on our individual welfare and it’s great that OUSA is there to stick up for us. But as the past nine years proves, what happens in Wellington is important for our welfare too. Part of sticking up for students is supporting the prospective government that offers students the best deal. In 2020 that may well be a National one. But in 2017, it clearly isn’t.

This article first appeared in Issue 13, 2017.
Posted 11:13am Sunday 28th May 2017 by Sam McChesney.