When Victoria College opened for lectures on 17 April 1899 the first students were quick to organise themselves. On the 6th of May a meeting was held that resolved to form a students’ society. Ten days later the Victoria College Students’ Society (VCSS) was born.
The VCSS tasked itself with improving student facilities and services; in October 1899 it successfully petitioned the College Council on the need for a student library.
The Debating Society was one of the first clubs formed. The subject of its first debate ‘That any system of control of the drink traffic is inimical to the highest development of civilisation’ set the tone for many such discussions over the next one hundred and ten years.
In 1902 the Association’s first publication was printed. Like those that would follow, the frankness of Spike (1902-61) often got it into trouble. The first issue had to be reprinted. Later in the century, student papers would be recalled or printed sections of the text blacked out. Even in 2005, the University obtained a High Court injunction against the distribution of an edition of Salient (1938-) after they obtained and published confidential University documents.
Over the next decade, as clubs, societies and students multiplied, the University’s facilities proved inadequate. The Association raised funds and oversaw the construction of its own gymnasium and tennis courts.
The War, Depression and Students
Although the First World War saw the College and Association suffer huge losses, the War’s end quickly saw social and sporting life revived. The Association lobbied for Halls of Residence to be established and the levelling of the land that would become the Boyd-Wilson Field. The Free Discussions Club became the critical outlet for radicalism, discussing topics ranging from ‘the Historicity of Jesus’ to eugenics and conscription. It was this sort of debate that would culminate in its disaffiliation over its radical paper Student in 1933.
The Great Depression and the austerity measures of the Finance Act in 1931 cut deeply into bursaries and tertiary funding generally. As the political consciousness of students increased, first by mass unemployment and its associated social injustices, and then by the rising militarism which led to World War II, the new student newspaper Smad (1930-37) and its successor Salient provided fertile ground for the expression of more often than not, left-wing and radical points of view.
The 1940s, dominated by the loss of students who served in the World War II, saw vast contrasts in student activity. While drinking horns became a major feature of the Easter Tournament, students also participated in their first protest march through the city. Led by members of the Socialist Club they marched to the Netherlands Consulate in 1947 to protest Dutch military activity in what is now Indonesia.
The 1950s saw the ejection of left-leaning members from the Executive in favour of a conservative committee that reflected the society and values of the era. The students’ association became more aligned with New Zealand society than it had been since World War I.
Ironically, sport – specifically rugby – was instrumental in reversing a decade-long decline in interest in national politics when in 1960 students from Victoria joined the first street demonstrations against sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa. Students, as a group, were beginning to discover their collective power to protest against the injustices of the wider world around them. As British and American pop culture swept over the consciousness of the student body, life at Victoria began to undergo dramatic and far-reaching change.
Not everyone welcomed the transformation of society. A brief Salient editorship in 1963 by future Labour Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer saw him attack the ‘new woman’ at Victoria as “a hard and brash super-sophisticate with dyed hair and drip-dry morals.” Regardless of such conservatism, change was afoot. Rising student fees in 1964 saw a spontaneous storming of Parliament and occupation of Keith Holyoke’s office by 150 students at the tail end of the capping procession. The Prime Minister returned in kind by talking to them and providing them with refreshments.
The late 1960s saw mass student movements around the world pushing for social and political change. Student led strikes in France almost overthrew the Charles de Gaulle administration in 1968. VUWSA President Douglas White warned that if Victoria was to avoid the rioting and violence of students overseas then it needed to significantly improve the channels of communication within the University community. Negotiations were overseen by Chancellor and former student representative Dick Simpson and included student representative Rosemary Barrington. It resulted in increased student representation generally, including on the University Council and its subcommittees and also on the Student Union Building management committee.
The 1970s saw students storming a Pacific Basin Economic Cooperation conference held in their own Student Union Building, increasing their activity against apartheid and challenging ‘slumlords’. They briefly rejected radicalism in 1974 when Presidential candidate John McDonald campaigned on a social as opposed to a socialist platform. His call for more stein evenings saw him win with a large majority. He didn’t last long as President, becoming the only one to resign in the Association’s long history. This was a decade dominated by the Vietnam War, which saw as many as three thousand of Victoria’s six thousand students on one march, and around two thousand participate in a general meeting to confirm the donation of two thousand dollars to the Viet Minh for them to purchase a tank.
Despite the education cuts of the 1980s, this era saw students shift to a more conservative approach. Yet the decade also saw students mount their most militant campaign during the Springbok Tour protests of 1981. Toward the end of the decade the Association was restructured so as to focus on issues of quality and access in education; these were perceived by the Association as the pressing issues for the student population.
However protest activities continued throughout the 1990s, with dozens of students arrested outside Parliament in 1997 in an ‘anti-privatisation of education’ protest that became a test-case of New Zealand’s civil liberties. In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that the students’ civil liberties were indeed breached by the actions of the Speaker of the House and the New Zealand Police, and compensation of hundreds of thousands of dollars was ordered.
The New Millennium
In 1999, the Association’s centennial year, students voted overwhelmingly in a government-demanded referendum to keep membership of their Association universal, ensuring vital services and representation of the student body would continue into the new millennium. This majority, of approximately 90% of students, was achieved despite a concerted campaign for voluntary membership.
The 2005 VUWSA Annual General Meeting (AGM) saw the creation of an additional three Executive positions, bringing membership of the VUWSA Executive to 13. Motions to establish the roles of Queer Officer, International Students’ Officer and Environmental Officer were backed by their respective representative groups (UniQ, the International Students’ Council and Gecko) who had organised enough of their membership to attend the meeting to guarantee the passage of the respective motions. More recently, questions have been asked as to why the Executive needs to be so large and to whether such roles are necessary, with others maintaining that representation is best when it is at an Executive level.
In 2006 Victoria hosted the annual New Zealand University Games. VUWSA managed a team which comprised of over five hundred students. Twenty eight sports were offered with points awarded to the top place getters. With the hometown and numerical advantage, Victoria ran an incredibly successful campaign and dominated the points table. Victoria won the highly coveted University Games Shield with a point’s total of 280. Victoria students went on to win the Shield in 2008 and again in 2009, claiming the Shield an impressive three out of four consecutive years. VUWSA’s success at these Games demonstrates the sporting talent of Victoria students as well as the dedication and expertise of the VUWSA team management.
Campus Radio Returns
After more than a decade without a student radio station (Radio Active was sold off after a vote by students as a general meeting in the early 1990s), the Victoria Broadcasting Club (the VBC 88.3FM) was launched during Orientation 2007. The VBC 88.3FM is now at the cutting edge of student media, having firmly established itself in both the student and local communities. In 2008, students put forward and passed a motion at the VUWSA AGM to give the VBC 88.3FM one percent of student levies to help fund it into the future. 2009 President Jasmine Freemantle developed a close working relationship with the VBC 88.3FM, in order to facilitate a greater variety of events for students, and to assist the VBC 88.3FM in the provision of training and other opportunities to VUWSA members.
The VBC 88.3FM play an extremely active organisational and promotional role in VUWSA Orientation and Re-orientation programmes, as well as in other student run events on and off campus. The relationship between VUWSA and the VBC 88.3FM was formalised via the signing of the Deed of the Victoria Broadcasting Trust in 2009.
A successful and sprawling ‘Box City’ was staged in the Quad in 2007 to highlight the lack of student support through the student loan and allowances schemes. The stunt gained national media attention with students and Executive members building their own house out of boxes which they resided in for the night. The VUWSA Executive also held their weekly meeting in a specially built box.
2007 and 2008 heralded in a new wave of controversy. The emergence of a ticket of right-leaning, pro-voluntary student membership (VSM) students saw the 2007 VUWSA elections become one the most controversial elections in over a decade. The ‘A-Team’ ran a candidate in every position, basing their campaign on the promise of a $25 refund for each student from their annual levy. VUWSA Representative Groups rallied against the ticket due to their plan to remove the funding to such groups as UniQ, CanDo and the Postgraduate Students’ Association (PGSA). Throughout the campaign accusations emerged of unconstitutional conduct and threats of injunction were levelled against Salient. The A-Team ticket was ultimately unsuccessful in winning any positions, with candidates who were not running on the ticket beating the A-Team by consistently large margins.
Perhaps the most successful part of 2008 saw VUWSA continue to campaign against cut backs to the quality and access to education at Victoria University and student support from the Government. Energetic and strong campaigns were coordinated by the VUWSA and its student representatives on various committees against the potential closure of the Film School and cut backs to the Gender and Women’s Studies programme. Student led protests and activism saw submissions flood in against the restructuring of the Film School and saw a meeting convened between the Pro-Vice Chancellor and other senior University staff to hear students’ concerns.