When Victoria College opened for lectures 17 April 1899 the first students were quick to organise themselves. 6 May 1899 a meeting was held; and the outcome from this meeting was to form a students’ society. 10-days later the Victoria College Students’ Society (VCSS) was created.
The VCSS tasked itself with improving student facilities and services. In October 1899 it successfully petitioned Victoria's College Council on the need for a student library.
The Victoria Debating Society was one of the first Victoria University clubs formed. The subject of its first debate was, ‘That any system of control of the drink traffic is inimical to the highest development of civilisation.' This first debate set the tone for many discussions over the next one hundred and ten years.
In 1902 the Association’s first publication was printed. Like those that would follow, the frank content 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 would be blacked out. Even in 2005, the University obtained a High Court injunction against the distribution of an edition of Salient (1938) after Salient had obtained and then published confidential University documents.
Over the next decade, as clubs, societies and students multiplied, the University’s facilities proved to be inadequate. To improve facilities, the Association took the matter in its own hands by raising funds and overseeing the construction of a gymnasium and tennis courts.
War, depression and students
During WWI, the University and Association suffered huge losses. However, after the War, social and sporting life quickly revived. Again, the Association took the initiative and improved the conditions by developing the Boyd-Wilson Field to keep up with the increasing University population; and lobbied for new Halls of Residence.
Over time several more clubs and committees were formed, including the Free Discussions Club. This Club became the critical outlet for radicalism, discussing topics ranging from 'the historicity of Jesus' to eugenics and conscription.
The Great Depression and the austerity measures of the Finance Act in 1931 cut deep into bursaries; and tertiary funding. Students became more politically conscious as unemployment levels rose. Rising militarism led to the tragic occurrence of World War II. Students needed somewhere to centrally voice their opinions. And they did so in Smad (1930-37); followed by Salient. Both these magazines provided fertile ground for the expression of more often than not, left-wing and radical points of view.
There was a decrease of University activity after World War II, and many students lost their lives in this War. Post 1940s was dominated by drinking horns, which became a major feature of the Easter Tournament. Students also participated in the first VUWSA protest-march through Wellington City. Led by members of the Socialist Club they also traveled and marched at the Netherlands Consulate in 1947 protesting Dutch military activity (in what is now Indonesia).
In the 1950s the Executive moved from having left-leaning members in favour of a conservative committee. This Committee reflected the society and values of this era. During this time the Association became more aligned with New Zealand society than it had been since World War I.
Global consciousness and local action
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 though. A brief Salient editorship in 1963 by future Labour Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer included an attack of 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 when 150 students stormed Keith Holyoke’s office at the tail-end of the capping procession. Ironically, the Prime Minister returned in kind by talking to them and providing them with refreshments.
The late 1960s was rampant with mass student-movements around the world pushing for social and political change. Aggressive student-led strikes in France nearly overthrew the Charles de Gaulle administration in 1968. VUWSA was aware that similar strikes could happen at Victoria. To avoid rioting and student-violence, president Douglas White improved the channels of communication with the University. Additionally, Chancellor, Dick Simpson, and student representative, Rosemary Barrington, negotiated together and increased student representation across University committees, on the University Council and its subcommitttees.
In the 1970s Victoria students diverted their energy against apartheid when they stormed a Pacific Basin Economic Cooperation conference held in their own Student Union Building. They also 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 vote. He didn’t last long as President though, becoming the only one to resign in the Association’s long history.
The 1970s was a decade dominated by the Vietnam War, and this decade was marked with protests. As many as three thousand of Victoria’s six thousand students marched in protest on one occasion; and two thousand participated in a general meeting to confirm the donation of two thousand dollars to the Viet Minh for them to purchase a tank.
The 1980s was marked with a huge recession. The NZ Government cut budgets left, right and centre. Despite the education cuts of the 1980s, students shifted to a more conservative approach. During this decade Victoria students mounted their most militant campaign during the Springbok Tour protests of 1981. Toward the end of the decade the Association was restructured, and changed their activist-focus to education quality and access.
Protest activities continued throughout the 1990s. Dozens of students were arrested outside Parliament in 1997 in an ‘anti-privatisation of education’ protest. This protest became significant to changing history when it was used 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. 90% of students voted for voluntary membership despite a concerted campaign.
In 2005, three new Executive positions, Queer Officer, International Students’ Officer and Environmental Officer, were established at VUWSA's Annual General Meeting (AGM). UniQ, the International Students’ Council, and Gecko had organised their members to attend the AGM in order to guarantee the passage of the respective motions.
In 2006 Victoria hosted the annual New Zealand University Games. At these Games, VUWSA managed a team of over five hundred Victoria students across twenty-eight different sports. Victoria University students were awarded some of the highest points at the University Games. Victoria also won the highly coveted University Games Shield with a point’s total of 280. Additionally, Victoria students went on to win the Shield in 2008 and again in 2009 (Victoria actually claimed the Shield an impressive three out of four consecutive years).
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. VBC 88.3FM is now at the cutting edge of student media, having firmly established itself in the University and local-Wellington 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, and through this relationship they facilitated a variety of additional events for students. VBC 88.3FM also provided radio-training to students working in the VUWSA radio; as well as 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 VBC 88.3FM was formalised in 2009 through the signing of a deed with the Victoria Broadcasting Trust..
In 2007 VUWSA staged a successful and 'Box City’ in Victoria's 'Quad' to highlight the lack of student-support provided by the Government's the student loan and allowances schemes. This stunt gained national media attention when students and Executive members built 'houses' out of boxes and resided in them overnight. The Executive also held their weekly meetings in one of these make-shift boxes.
2007 and 2008 was heralded by a new wave of controversy. The emergence of a ticket of right-leaning, pro-voluntary student membership, 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.
Perhaps the most successful part of 2008 was when VUWSA campaigned against Governmental cut-backs to financing particular education programmes. Strongly against this, VUWSA representatives coordinated campaigns that ran across committees, petitioning against the potential closure of the Film School and cut-backs to the Gender and Women’s Studies programme. Students protested against reducing the finances provided to these programmes, which led to a meeting between the Pro-Vice Chancellor and other senior University staff to hear students’ concerns.