One of the things that make for strong students’ association is the services they provide. Specifically things like clubs and on campus events throughout the year which contribute to the student culture.
The heart of the student culture is and should be the student union buildings and facilities. These will generally include student bar and cafes, the common room and club spaces, gymnasiums and sports fields and various other social spaces.
Not all these services are necessarily owned by students associations. Quite often the institution and the student association will do joint ventures and share the cost of building and maintaining these services. This is great. However when you do business there is one important thing to remember – sign contracts and keep records.
The Victoria University Student Union Building opened in 1961. Victoria University contributed about a quarter of the costs, the Students’ Association contributed about 1/3, and the rest came from alumni and other community investment. These figures are rough, as records were not kept. Further no deed or agreement about ownership was signed. The assumption at the time was that the students’ association would manage most of the day to day operations, but this was vague and not written down. Before long disagreements started…
By the late 1990s things had really become ugly. With treats of Voluntary Student Membership (VSM) from the government, the university started asserting it should have full control of the student union complex and services. This resulted in the students association losing control of the bar and beer prices soaring, an ugly tug of war between the university as the students’ association over control of clubs and countless other disputes.
When I was elected to the student exec in late 2002, I saw this as one of the key issues facing the students’ association. Most of my colleagues felt the same way. In 2004 VUWSA President Amanda Hill really brought things to the fore during her term by threatening to take legal action against the university. In 2005 there was a change of Vice Chancellor, who started an informal dialogue with VUWSA about trying to find a resolution. In early 2006 a negotiating team of myself as VUWSA President, Dave Guerin (1993 VUWSA President) and Mark Thomas (former exec member and 1996 National Party candidate for Wellington Central ) were on the VUWSA negotiating team. On the university side Jenny Bentley the Campus Facilities Manager and Victoria Healy the university lawyer. These negotiations were very professional and I still believe the compromise we came to has served students well in the years that followed. Personally I learnt a great deal from these negotiations, something that was to become very useful in later life.
The solution was a Deed of Strategic Partnership set up a governance structure between VUWSA and VUW, where the university and the students’ association had two representatives – and a chair agreed by both parties would be appointed.
My President’s column just before we signed the Deed of Strategic partnership summarised things. A week later the deed was signed, and the student magazine reporters enjoyed some free alcohol, but did also see the significance of the deed. I also had a bit to say about this in the 2006 VUWSA Annual Report.
As a result of this the VUWSA and the VUWSA Trust, were able to support the University in its plans to revive the campus facilities. A few years later when I returned to campus to complete my postgraduate degree, I enjoyed a campus with far nicer facilities and better protected from the Wellington southerlies than those we endured a few years earlier.
There were many people involved bringing an end to that 45 year ownership and governance dispute. I was certainly pleased to have played a part in helping bring it to an end.