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Student unions shy away from political role

Student unions, once firebrand mouthpieces on the national political scene, are increasingly steering clear of controversial public debates, says a political commentator.

University of Canterbury political science lecturer Bronwyn Hayward said student unions had become more business-like in recent years, basing decision-making on private sector models rather than prioritising student opinion or needs.

“You’ve got lots of assets that you need to manage as a student union and they are big assets,” she said. “But you’ve also got issues to confront as a union.”

Students were high users of public services like libraries, the art gallery and parks, which fall under the authority of the city councils, so they needed strong representation during local body elections, Hayward said.

Lincoln University Students’ Association (LUSA) president Kent Lloyd said local council and community boards also made decisions that students should be aware of, but student unions adhered to student demands when speaking out.

“A lot of what we do is focused on campus issues that more directly impact students as students, instead of students as general citizens,” he said. “What we try to do is be reactive to what our students want.”

Hayward said student unions were less about giving students a voice and more about running a company.

“You do need a union that can stand up to government and up to its councils, because the pressures are really coming on students to pay for, fund and support education themselves.”

Hayward said individuals would struggle to protest these changes themselves and relied upon strong unions to do it for them.

University of Canterbury Students’ Association (UCSA) outgoing president Erin Jackson said the student union did not want to be political for fear of excluding students.

“If you are a politically driven organisation then you are just going to jump on the bandwagon, like who the next Labour leader is or asset sales or the GCSB bill,” she said. “You’re going to get involved in issues that are driven by a different agenda. We are driven purely by what students need.”

Jackson said some key student worries, including accommodation and employment, were not council concerns, though there were flow-on effects associated with these issues.

“There are a lot of things happening in the suburbs that it [council] is not aware of. It’s not just that it’s hard to find a house or it’s more expensive,” she said. “There are subsidiary issues such as parking, traffic, or increased rubbish collection.”

Lloyd said fees and allowances were core issues for students that were beyond local government control, and Lincoln students were more concerned about on-campus matters such as student spaces or changes to qualifications.

“If there were issues that people did feel strongly about outside the campus and they wanted us to talk about that, then we certainly would,” he said.

Hayward said a United Nations survey conducted before the 2011 earthquake showed New Zealand students were more narrow-minded than their European counterparts. European students were more stressed, but were also concerned about big issues like the global financial crisis, while New Zealand students were more relaxed.

“Christchurch students, particularly, couldn’t and didn’t want to say their plans for the future. There was a big group of people that just want to live now and then there is another kind of group who are quite apolitical.”

Student unions had always been an important source of politicisation for students, and a source of political leaders, Hayward said. “But there’s another whole group who don’t want to commit to a party and that’s more usual for young voters, and for New Zealanders in general.”

Jackson said that unions were typically a breeding ground for young Labour party members or activists, but the UCSA’s role was not to be a political lobby group.

“When you have a politically active students’ association you start to see disenfranchisement across the board,” she said. “Our role is to create belonging and ownership within the student body; it’s not because I want to be on a party list.”

_Daniela Maoate-Cox