Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33, No. 1 18 February 1970
NZUSA & VUWSA—Immediate Past Presidents Report on the Two Unions
NZUSA & VUWSA—Immediate Past Presidents Report on the Two Unions
Since its unambitious beginnings in 1928, NZUSA, the national union of students, has come a long way. Today it is involved in many activities which are directly or indirectly related to the needs and wants of New Zealand students. It operates a professional travel bureau, a discount insurance scheme, publishes Focus, a national magazine of high standard, and is engaged in a study of how further to add to the material benefits it can confer on students. Through its officers, it conducts research into problems of higher education, represents the student viewpoint on education and other matters to the Government, to Government Departments and to other bodies. It frequently takes up the grievances of individual students. It organises seminars, conferences and takes part in a large number of organisations which have widely varying objectives. It maintains contacts with overseas student unions and international student bodies and also provides the means by which New Zealand students can make a contribution to overseas aid of one kind or another.
However, NZUSA's continued existence has always been somewhat tenuous. Not one of the seven constituent members of the Association totally supports it and its growth, I am sad to say, has been not so much a result of solid constituent backing as of the foresight of its past officers.
NZUSA has been a pawn in many a budding student politician's attempts to gain political office, and this has constantly forestalled attempts to diversify and strengthen the Association as New Zealand's national union of students.
More than this, on many occasions constituent members of NZUSA have blamed the Association for what were basically the failings of the members themselves. Twice a year, constituents come together to form NZUSA's Council, and it is here that the Association's activities for the coming six months are discussed. Only too frequently do constituent Students' Associations promise to undertake some task which is promptly forgotten. NZUSA is too often blamed for such failures on the part of constituents.
I say this with the major reservation that NZUSA—as an organisation—does make mistakes. It does sometimes neglect to do its members' bidding. In general terms, however, it fulfils what constituents deem to be its functions. But it could do more, much more, if constituents (and some are more forward-looking than others) were willing to see the organisation as something more than a twice-yearly meeting of student politicians.
NZUSA is potentially a strong and respected group in the New Zealand community. And the stronger it is and the more respected it is, the more it can do for its members. To give an example, most constituents spend 50c to $1 per student each year on their local student newspaper. Focus cost each New Zealand student 1.9 cents last year. And constituents still complained about the cost! So money is one story. With more money (not a lot), the Association could diversify. Its staff, especially the the President, are expected to be Jacks-of-all-trades. Nobody in those circumstances could expect them to be masters of any as well.
Just as important as financial support is the moral backing the Association receives from its constituents. I could instance many examples—too lengthy to be related here—where a worthwhile project has failed because constituents have about-faced. This does not earn us friends, and it weakens rather than strengthens the organisation.
In all, I believe the students of New Zealand deserve responsible, strong representation at the national level. They need a competent, professionally-run organisation to help them to gain maximum material advantages. I don't see them getting either of these things for as long as local support for the national Association is half-hearted.
I should add in closing that while I have stressed the short-comings of some constituent members of NZUSA, I know of many instances where constituents have acted very creditably in respect of the Association. I simply feel these occasions to be too few and far between.
The Students' Association is charged with vital functions both on and off campus. In each sphere, effectiveness is crippled by the great number of students who just couldn't give two. Even one of last year's most worthwhile efforts—1% Aid—was the prerogative of the few. The $2000 collected for 1% Aid was donated by only three hundred students. The other 5100 students did not necessarily disagree with the aim of increasing New Zealand's overseas aid—it was just too much for them to stir mind and body into extracting the wall et.
Here the Association should function as an agent of social renewal. This requires the expression and promotion of progressive social and political attitudes. If such attitudes are to carry the support of the student body, it is crucial that there be an effective policy-making organ that enjoys the confidence of students. Our present policy organ is the Students Representation Council (SRC), which burst into being last year.
The open membership of the SRC (all students attending may vote) aims to induce participatory (as distinct from representative) democracy. While open membership invites dominance of meetings by the few (to the point where any confidence in the SRC could be lost), it also gives all students an opportunity to participate in decisionmaking in a way that will ensure that whatever consensus exists is represented in decisions taken. If we can make participatory democracy work, in this isolated society at least, we may reach the ideal of restoring to the individual some small sense of his dignity and power. This sense, which forms the basis of democratic theory, has long been lost in democratic practice.
Last year, the SRC never received support from the Executive until it was too late for this support to be meaningful. That mistake must not be repeated. Until such time as the SRC shows itself to be incapable of maintaining the confidence of the student body, it should be encouraged with vitality. However, if we are to be judged worthy social critics, the SRC must be thorough. It is worse than useless, for example, to pass motions urging the legalisation of pot in the absence of a detailed and balanced report. Towards the end of last year, the SRC established a sub-committee to prepare just such a report. Should we be shown merely to have scratched the surface of issues on which the SRC makes recommendations, our effectiveness will be jeopardised.
At times, social and political attitudes are best expressed through the New Zealand University Students' Association, the national student union. NZUSA, with a membership of over 30,000 students, commands greater political weight than do each of the individual Associations. NZUSA is potentially a highly effective political pressure group, particularly in matters relating to education (in which field NZUSA employs a full-time Research Officer). There is also potential in other areas—last year, NZUSA's representations on the Security Intelligence Bill were recognised in the House to have signigicantly affected the final enactment. Yet there remains the danger that NZUSA could become an old boys club of ex-student politicians. It could begin to operate on a different wavelength from the students it represents. That this may occur was evident last year when NZUSA apologised to Messrs Holyoake and Kirk for the rhubarb handed out at the Compass debate.
Either through NZUSA or independently, our Association must be involved in some international questions. A university atmosphere breeds concern for world problems such as poverty, racial discrimination and war. Some students feel that the Association should not concern itself with these matters but we must reject such moral myopia. What student is not alarmed on being reminded that the present world population, which evolved over thousands of years, is projected to double in 35 years? And why should this Association not express its alarm that the problems associated with this population growth are not being faced? Let us continue to direct the Association to be an agent of social concern, armed with youth, vitality and idealism, reaffirming the good, rejecting the bad and hoping like hell that we have the wisdom to distinguish between the two.
One pervading aspect of modern university education is its impersonal nature. Student involvement at all levels of the University's administration may be one way in which this problem can be tackled. 1969 saw the initial trial of widespread student involvement in administration. The Association played it quietly, endeavouring to create an atmosphere of confidence. The time is at hand when further student initiatives should be taken, aiming at playing a significant part in moulding the University. Students do have a contribution to make in the functioning of the entire University—even in the area of staff appointments. While respecting the abilities of staff, we should ensure that the education we receive is responsive to our needs. As consumers of this education, we need good teachers and not merely good publicists who were selected because they could once learn.
While the Association needs to expend much energy on student representation, we would be naive to expect too much in return. We may make some contribution, we may assault the impersonal atmosphere to some degree, but we will not appreciably alter a machine geared to mass production.
Within the Association itself, much effort is required to ensure that the budget of some $100,000 is adjusted to produce best value for students, clubs and the Association itself. This requires arduous and highly important administration. At the moment, the SRC has no control over finance but if it functions well there is little reason why it should be denied full confidence.
Publications devour a goodly proportion of the budget. Cappicade maintains a reputation for satire and subtlety which counters the woodenness of some other capping magazines. Argot was officially adopted last year as the Association's official literary magazine and should contribute well to a culturally poor society. Salient has been produced weekly over the last two years. If we are to get the quality we expect from a student newspaper, Salient production needs to be rationalised and those involved paid more adequately. If these measures fail to ensure consistent quality, the only alternative would be to revert to fortnightly production.
The Association must further ensure that services are available to cater for important non-academic requirements. Facilities such as the Student Union Building, the Association Office and suitable cafeteria catering require constant attention. Cultural, sporting and social activities are essential in bringing fullness to university life. Last year, despite a contrary recommendation from the Finance Advisory Committee, it was shown that the Cultural Council could administer its own funds—which included an increase of $200 in the cultural vote. Cultural activity, in particular, needs still more development and more funds.
No one would deny that the Association has a great diversity of activity. How successful it will be in any one area will ultimately depend on the students who make up its membership.