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Silence on campus?

Fri 16 Jul 2010 In: Features View at Wayback View at NDHA

Many of the sharpest weapons in the nation's GLBT rights battles have been forged on the university campus, but the future of the groups where queer students have always found solidarity, support and debate is now under threat. ACT MP Sir Roger Douglas is seeking to make student union membership voluntary through a private member's bill (the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill). There are fears that if it passes it could lead to the demise of queer student groups, because a voluntary regime would basically guarantee a dramatic drop in student union membership and therefore a huge fall in their funding. The current situation At most associations, students automatically become a member when they enrol and are entitled to the benefits of full membership. They usually pay an association levy, which can be added to their student loan. New Zealand Union of Students' Associations president David Do says student associations can provide the range of services they currently offer because almost all students are automatically members. "Students can individually opt-out of membership on conscientious objection and financial hardship grounds. This is in the law already, though the process varies amongst institutions," he says. Do says students can collectively decide, by initiating a referendum, on whether their membership is ‘compulsory' or voluntary. Auckland University students opted for voluntary membership in 1999, and membership then fell from about 33,000 students to just 3,000. That went back up to above 20,000 once the nominal membership fee was waived. The overall impact on students Do says the bill will devastate important student association services to students – welfare and academic advocacy, student representation on institution committees, financial assistance, legal help, counselling services, student social events (including Orientation week), student clubs and societies, campus recreation facilities, and university sports, among others. He says NZUSA believes if the law is changed it will hurt the quality of tertiary education, harm the quality of the tertiary experience and cost both the Government and tertiary institutions more in the long run. "Similar legislation was implemented in Australia in 2005. It greatly weakened the student support services that student associations offered, damaged the quality of education many students received, and cost the Government over $NZ120 million to introduce. On some campuses, services previously provided by the student association disappeared." The impact on queer students Do says if the student union membership becomes voluntary, the education and experience of queer students in tertiary education will be significantly harmed, through significant funding cuts to UniQs. "This threatens the ability of UniQs to provide proper pastoral, academic, and social support for queer students as they undertake tertiary education," he says. "The bill also attacks the queer student voice and their ability to have democratically-elected collective organisations on campus, by removing the existing right of students to determine how to organise themselves." What the UniQs say A number of UniQs took part in the submissions process to the Education and Science Select Committee. UniQ Otago's spokesperson on voluntary student membership Richard Girvan says the group opposes the bill because of its 'false pretences'. "It is a solution to a problem that does not exist; students are not calling for Voluntary Student Membership and already have the means to enact it if they do." Girvan says passing the bill would be disastrous to those who rely on the Student Associations, especially minority groups like UniQ Otago. "The support services provided by OUSA are vital to queer students, especially to those who are questioning or are victims of homophobia and harassment." Girvan fears without such services some students could succumb to isolation and depression and even drop out. He says it would also destroy the voice of queer students. Holly Neilson from Askew Waikato says without a student union the group would lose its safe room, pride week and all of its funding, "meaning we would be forced to rely on fundraising which is quite hard for us as we do not have the manpower to pull off such feats." "Over the years as a group Askew has struggled to stand out at university, and we are finally beginning to get into the swing of things, and give students the help they need when they come out as homosexual students," she says. UniQ Victoria points out that an October 2009, a report by the University of Auckland found that in the last 12 months more than a third of same/both‐sex attracted students in NZ secondary schools had seriously contemplated suicide, and around half had deliberately harmed themselves. It says in conjunction with this, queer youth were found to have higher rates of substance abuse, STIs and mental ill health compared to students identifying as heterosexual. It says while the research concentrated on secondary school students, it cannot be viewed as irrelevant to the welfare of tertiary students. "Welfare issues do not end at secondary school, and UniQ feels that we provide an important resource for queer tertiary students. We are especially mindful of first‐year students who are often living away from home for the first time." UniQ Victoria says many queer students come to the Wellington campus from rural centres. "Universities are places of learning, but they are also places of exploration, investigation and self‐discovery. This is true of all students, but it is especially pertinent for queer or questioning students." "Queer students new to university are often escaping from intolerant environments. Their tertiary education experience plays a vital role in affirming the equality of their sexual identity." The groups points out that it provides services and support networks that help students with this transition. "For example, UniQ Victoria's queer mentoring programme provides an excellent support network for new students struggling with their sexual identity. If student association membership was made voluntary, the ability for services (such as the mentoring programme) to continue would be deleteriously undermined." It says it would also affect its relationships with outside organisations such as local group for queer secondary school students Schools Out and the New Zealand Aids Foundation. "With a less effective UniQ and with our organisation limited, Schools Out will be deprived of an important source of support, and the Aids Foundation will lose an important method for both recruiting volunteers and providing safer sex information to tertiary students." UniQ Victoria is also fearful the bill will undermine the voice of queer students as a group in society. "The battle for social inequality is patently still not over, and a strong queer voice on New Zealand university campuses has often been the catalyst for social equality in New Zealand." Jacqui Stanford - 16th July 2010

Credit: Jacqui Stanford

First published: Friday, 16th July 2010 - 6:24pm

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