Submission of the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) Te HautūKahurangi o Aotearoa to the Education and Science Select Committee on the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill
31 March 2010
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Tertiary Education Union
Te HautūKahurangi o Aotearoa
Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill
The New Zealand Tertiary Education Union (TEU) Te HautūKahurangi o Aotearoa is the largest tertiary sector union in this country. Our membership currently sits at approximately 10,500 full-time equivalent members, covering all types of TEOs in the sector.
The TEU does not support the proposed amendments as outlined in the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill. Our reasons for this position include:
- That the current legislative framework relating to students’ associations already provides the necessary flexibility for students to make a democratic decision as to whether membership of their local association will be compulsory or voluntary;
- That overseas experience has demonstrated a very adverse effect on the provision of services, participation in cultural, sporting and recreation activities, and the ability for students to be democratically represented in a variety of fora, when membership of students’ associations becomes voluntary.
- That if enacted, the amendment will do nothing to enhance students’ experience of tertiary education, and may end up costing the sector more, at a time when institutions are experiencing significant funding cuts and government pressure to rationalise spending.
Freedom of Association
The sponsor of this Bill has submitted the proposed amendments on the basis that tertiary students are denied their rights to freedom of association under the current Education Act. On reading Section 229A of the Act, it quickly becomes clear that in fact students are able to (and have) conducted democratic referenda to decide whether membership of their local students’ association will be compulsory or voluntary. The TEU is at a loss therefore to understand the purpose of the proposed amendments. To our knowledge, the amendments have not arisen as the result of a widespread campaign on the part of students (that is, those affected by the proposed changes). We can only conclude that its drafting is political ideology, rather than a response to widespread constituent concern. The TEU is firmly of the view that unless the majority of students push for legislative change relating to their democratic organisations, the status quo should remain.
Likely negative impacts on students
Two significant pieces of research recently undertaken on behalf of the Australian government have considered the impact of voluntary membership of students’ associations on students’ experience of university life. The research showed that a change to voluntary student union membership and consequent loss of income by students’ associations significantly and negatively impacted on students’ experience of and involvement in tertiary education, with the Australian government considering a change back to pre-VSU days.
“Most submissions concluded that the abolition of upfront compulsory student union fees had impacted negatively on the provision of amenities and services to university students, with the greatest impact at smaller and regional universities and campuses.
Many noted that the introduction of VSU had forced rationalisations, and that current levels of services were more limited than had previously been the case. Many noted that the current arrangements were not sustainable in the medium to long term.” Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, April 2008″The Impact of Voluntary Student Unionism on Services, Amenities and Representation for Australian University Students – Summary Report” Australian Government publication, page 2.
Given the experience of our Australian counterparts, why should the government seek to change the current system, particularly at a time when the sector faces serious funding challenges, and is grappling with issues such as lifting academic achievement? These are real issues for the sector that need a concerted focus, without the distraction of spurious calls for legislative change that may end up costing students a positive tertiary education experience, and will undoubtedly mean a reduction in the provision of services and activities that add to the richness of tertiary study.
Of particular concern is the impact that such a change may have on the provision of services to Māori and Pacific students and students with disabilities, who rely on strong and visible representation of their interests and issues by their representative bodies. The likely result of the proposed legislative change will be fragmentation and loss of the voices of these and other groups within the tertiary sector. When this is considered alongside recent changes to the Education Act that remove guaranteed student representation on polytechnic and institute of technology councils, a rather gloomy picture of future student life emerges. Again, the Australian experience of such a legislative change captures the extent of the damage that can occur:
“Monash Student Association submission: The biggest loss has been in student attitude – that university is a place to go to class and go home, and so many students appear completely disinterested in any events on campus outside of their classes. The quality of students joining our clubs and our club committees, and the time they consider reasonable to devote to club activities has continually diminished, as the dominant ideology that another student’s welfare is of no concern to the student population as a whole begins to take hold.” Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, April 2008 “The impact of voluntary student unionism on services, amenities and representation for Australian university students – summary report” Australian Government publication, pg 9.
The government has recently announced its intention to focus on student retention and completion rates as a means of measuring academic quality and relevance and lifting overall educational performance.  Using retention and completion statistics as the primary measure of success or quality is of course an inexact science. However a strong correlation between academic success and positive student engagement opportunities (including social, arts/cultural and physical activities, as well as those directly related to academic programmes) has been shown to contribute positively to these figures. The 2008 Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) found that students who participated in a broad range of extra-curricular activities, (including those that in New Zealand are currently provided by students’ associations), were more likely to report satisfaction with their tertiary education experience and achieve positive educational outcomes. Aside from the obvious benefits to individual students, the contribution that these services and activities can make to overall student engagement (and therefore retention and completion) should not be under-estimated by the government. The kind of changes proposed by this Bill will almost certainly result in, at the very least, a reduction in what can be provided, and in many instances could mean loss of important services and activities that provide support for students and enrich their experience of tertiary education.
Likely negative impacts on the sector
The proposed amendments are likely to result in a loss of income for students’ associations. Institutions may then be forced to take responsibility for services or activities that students’ associations can no longer afford to provide. The possible flow-on effect of any re-direction of resources to maintain service and activity levels currently provided by students’ association fees should be of concern to the government.
“In many instances, assistance was provided by the university but these funds were redirected from other uses such as teaching, learning or research.” Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, April 2008 “The impact of voluntary student unionism on services, amenities and representation for Australian university students – summary report” Australian Government publication, page 2.
The sector has had a clear message that no new funding will be available for the forseeable future, and if institutions do end up providing even some of the services and activities that students’ association fees currently provide, the TEU fears that it will be at the cost of teaching, learning and research. Tertiary education institutions need to be able to focus on their core activities – providing quality teaching and learning experiences and contributing to lifting our research outputs and capacity. If this Bill passes into legislation, these core activities may end up being reduced in order to ensure that the broader range of services and activities needed as part of a tertiary education are able to be maintained.
Students’ associations provide a wide range of services and representation that are an essential and important part of the tertiary education experience. These include welfare and advocacy services, democratic representation on a wide range of institution committees, recreation, sport and leisure facilities, student publications, and entertainment and social activities enjoyed by many students. This Bill risks the loss of many of these services and activities, as well as possible negative impacts on teaching, learning and research. The TEU urges the Select Committee to look beyond the ideology driving this Bill, and to instead consider the wider and unwanted ramifications that may result from it becoming part of our legislative framework.
 Australian Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, April 2008 “The impact of voluntary student unionism on services, amenities and representation for Australian university students – summary report” Australian Government publication.
Australian University Sport (AUS) and the Australasian Campus Union Managers’ Association (ACUMA), 2007 “Voluntary Student Unionism Impact Study”
A January 2008 summary paper on the Education Counts website notes that “…it should be recognised that there are many factors outside of the tertiary education system that will impact on outcomes, and that concepts of retention and completion are not always good markers of quality, and need to be read in the context of other indicators.”
 Australian Council for Educational Research, 2009 “Engaging students for success – Australasian student engagement report/Australasian survey of student engagement 2008”