CUSU is a Sad Dinosaur

ED CUMMING argues CUSU needs to die or be cut back.

CUSU CUSU Council politics student politics Women's officer

Cambridge University is doubly blessed in its pastoral care system. The collegiate format means that students can be close enough to their peers on a daily basis to maintain a high level of awareness and response. Across the University, college women’s reps and welfare reps do superb work in raising issues, supporting those in need and liaising with college and university officials. They form a wonderful part of the Cambridge support network. Furthermore, the individual supervision-based teaching system at this university offers not only academic benefits, but also constant contact with concerned professionals, not to mention DoS’s and pastoral Tutors. In all, Cambridge offers one of the finest student care networks in the world, and we should all be proud to honour and support this.

It is the more a pity that the actions and attitudes of a very small group of people at a superficially senior level within this network ought to be abusing their positions so horribly.

Like many of us, I really ought to be revising right now, but the smell of crap coming from the most recent CUSU agenda is so overwhelming that I’m moved to try and air it before I carry on. Of all the countless examples of student politicians speeding off towards a point about ‘welfare’, leaving facts and their own intellects flapping limply in the breeze behind them, this is one of the most odious and pernicious I’ve encountered in my time at Cambridge.

To clarify: in response to the first issue of Varsity this term, the CUSU Women’s Union, after consultation with the CUSU council, has drafted two letters, listed in the Appendices to the agenda of the second council meeting of this term. The first of these letters is being sent to Varsity. The sending of the second, destined for those companies who advertise in Varsity, has been blocked.

In the first of these letters, the Women’s Union criticise Varsity for printing a ‘pull-out “Varsity Tabloid” which mimicked tabloid news as well as drawing attention to the launch of the Tab, an independent tabloid-style Cambridge student paper’. The proposed bases for this censure are that Varsity has a responsibility to student welfare (it doesn’t), and that some women have expressed their dissatisfaction to CUSU about the issue. It asks for an apology from Varsity for these inclusions, and a promise that future editorial teams will take their responsibilities towards student welfare more seriously.

As if this patronising and ill-conceived nonsense wasn’t enough, in the second letter the Women’s Union address Varsity’s sponsors. Their advertisers. Those companies without whom Varsity, unlike TCS, could not exist. As in, CUSU assembles its weight (those outside the university are understandably less familiar with its hysterical haplessness) against an independent student-run organisation, who also happen to be the direct commercial competitors of their own newspaper. I don’t know the details, but I imagine this is illegal. Or if not illegal, certainly way beyond CUSU’s mandate, even if the factual basis was there.

But there are so many other problems with the letters (one of which is reprinted below) that I’m bewildered as to where to begin. Let’s start with the most serious accusation: that Varsity is somehow endorsing a system which is harmful to women. I notice that nowhere in either letter (and here I’m using both Appendices A and B from the agenda for the second CUSU meeting, Easter term 2009) does it mention any specific aspect of the tabloid pull-out which has caused offence. Instead there is a nebulous sense of disgruntlement circling the word ‘tabloid’.

I’d love to be enlightened. Was it the ‘Camsay Street’ photo-diary, in which an undergraduate provocatively displayed her cleavage? Or perhaps it was distinguished Times columnist Caitlin Moran, posed attractively in a green silk dress? Or maybe the ‘Bedroom blues’ sexual advice column, in which a woman poses seductively with a pen. It could be all of these things – they all present women who have chosen to be photographed in attractive – dare I say it, sexually attractive poses. The same could be said of the fashion sections in both Varsity and TCS most weeks.

As I say, I couldn’t be sure, but I’m led to believe that, shockingly, it was the ‘Page 3 girl’ that caused a large part of the righteous agitation amongst the women’s officers. The photograph is of Rachel Pickles, a student from Homerton who not only volunteered enthusiastically for the role but was also delighted with the photos. I’m given to understand that she was under duress about no aspect of this, right down to the colour of her underwear. Quite right too. After all, she is an empowered, attractive, intelligent modern woman.

Were I a female student at Cambridge, I would feel scandalized that CUSU’s Women’s Union had directed its attention like this. I certainly know that some of my female friends do, and if that sounds vague it is no more so than the unspecific ‘complaints’ CUSU received to prompt this madness. This is even truer than normal in this term, when female students, perhaps more so than their less-conscientious male counterparts, are vulnerable to the stress of examinations, and the subsidiary effects of this. These are Welfare Issues.

Not a newspaper publishing a picture of a student in her pants. It is yet another demonstration of CUSU’s irrelevance in matters like this. Its members, rendered practically toothless by the effectiveness of the collegiate pastoral system, resort to grandiose gestures to justify themselves to each other. Usually these are just banal, but in this instance they are dangerous.

Where do these guys get off? Do they also object to the recent fashion show, in which female students walked the catwalk in lingerie to raise money for Amnesty? Do fashion shows not have a duty to consider the welfare of students? Or garden parties? Do drinking societies not have a duty to consider the welfare of students? I must confess at this point that I selected my own byline photo for the Tabloid issue, and in the full awareness that it makes me look about two stones lighter than reality. Am I being objectified? Is that connected to the culture of grown men preying on young boys in the Middle East? Or male homosexual rape?

Or alternatively, perhaps they feel that by moving away from the broadsheet elitism of the normal Varsity, and towards the more accessible style of Britain’s best-selling newspapers, Varsity is veering dangerously close to displaying a sense of humour and self-awareness that might elevate them from CUSU’s seeming mandate of constant, leadenly hubristic hypocrisy.

The letters point out that two female members of the editorial team objected to the publication of the tabloid edition. So what? That’s the whole point of having editors. They select what goes in. On any article, in any issue, there are members of the team who might not want it published, for a wide range of reasons. This is not CUSU’s problem. Never has been, never will be. The editors of the issue in question are responsible and careful, and care a great deal about both Cambridge and the newspaper. How often does a real tabloid offer a reasoned justification for exercising its freedom of expression in the editorial column?

The letters go on to implicate Varsity in racism and xenophobia by printing the tabloid pull-out, an underhand gesture that is as cheap as it is loathsome.

Varsity is not, as the letters report, a ‘Cambridge Student Newspaper’, but rather the ‘Independent Cambridge Student Newspaper’. Big difference. It is not tied to the university. It sells adverts, and pays for itself. Unlike TCS, it does not depend on CUSU’s overbearing presence to ensure advertising revenue and smother its quality. It subscribes to the independent Press Complaints Commission, a self-regulating body of serious, grown-up newspapers, who know more about these things than the coterie of infantile student activists apparently comprising the CUSU council.

That CUSU would write a letter about this, abusing its position as representing Cambridge students as a body, is bad enough. But that it would even think about writing to Varsity’s advertisers, in a bizarre conflation of women’s lib with commercial sabotage, is abhorrent, probably illegal and, within the structure of a university hinged on freedom of expression, morally dangerous. CUSU’s power should never, under any circumstances, be used to directly threaten Varsity. If Varsity breaks the law, it is a matter for the law. If Varsity breaches the PCC’s code of conduct, then that is a matter for the PCC. If Varsity is unpopular, its readership is quite free to stop responding to its advertisements.

CUSU is a sad dinosaur, with relevance to the student body only when it roars at something stupid. And like the dinosaurs, it needs to die or be cut back. Cambridge University is stuffed full of institutions like this, filled with students who derive a false sense of superiority from being a part of said institution. Varsity is one of them, perhaps, but Varsity charges the students nothing, and occasionally, very occasionally, might inform or entertain a couple of them. CUSU does neither of these things. Whilst the student body needs representation at a university-wide level, the last thing it needs is the current set-up, where a council of over-excitable try-hards are allowed to throw serious and malicious accusations around at random. The letters in the most recent CUSU agenda damage CUSU, unfairly damage Varsity, patronise the majority of the female students of Cambridge and, worst of all, distract from the excellent work being done at a collegiate level by Welfare Reps, women’s Reps and the wider pastoral system. Those who wrote them should be ashamed.