University student organisations have dropped in membership numbers as well as funding since compulsion was outlawed.
But the legislation could be reinstated with a change in government, as the youth wings of most opposition parties favour a return to compulsory membership.
The Freedom of Association Amendment Act, promoted by the ACT party and passed in September 2011, aimed to give students more freedom.
“Parliament’s gift to students tonight is freedom of accusation,” former ACT MP Heather Roy said after the bill was signed into law.
The decision to make membership voluntary has had a negative effect on students, Young Labour Party leader Katie Wilson says.
She says the voluntary system “doesn’t work.”
“It’s meant the universities have been cutting funding and making it harder for student unions to show what we’re doing.”
Young Mana Party leader Martin Graham agrees and says the students are the ones who are losing out.
“Without the financial backing of the students and the ability to compulsory sign them up, they [student associations] are locked in a bureaucratic wrangle with the university administration over property, over land and the ability to provide services to students,” he says.
He says services usually reserved for student unions are now being done by the universities themselves.
AUT University’s student association (AuSM) president April Pokino says voluntary student membership has been a struggle for the organisation.
“It was hard for the organisation when the bill first came into law," she says. "We had to cut some of our services, which wasn't good for students."
She says AuSM now has a system similar to that of the Otago association, where students are members unless they opt out.
However, ACT on Campus leader Louis Houlbrooke says he completely agrees with its premise.
“Most students couldn’t even say what [their student union] does,” he says.
He adds students should not be forced to engage if they don’t want to; especially if they are the ones paying for it.
Jason Walls is an AUT student studying Journalism and Economics