It’s Time To Cut CUSU Some Slack

Most of us don’t give a fifth of a shit, but TIM SQUIRRELL thinks their work’s worth defending.

Cambridge colleges CUSU debate elections hustings JCR LGBT march Student tim squirrell Union university welfare women's campaign

I never thought I’d find myself defending CUSU. However, given that most of Cambridge seems to despise them for one reason or another and I’m nothing if not a masochist, I’ll give it a go. If, by the end of this article, you still hate CUSU, you can have your money back.

Usually people attacking CUSU make three arguments. I say arguments; they tend to primarily consist of ad hominems. First, that the people who populate CUSU are awful, politically ambitious leftist prigs who delight in nothing more than attending marches to ban pop songs and smothering babies with red tape. The second is that they don’t represent us. The third is that they are utterly irrelevant and nobody knows or cares what they do. Let’s take these claims one at a time.

It probably wouldn’t be too much of a stretch of reasoning to suggest that maybe people get involved in CUSU not necessarily because they’re vapid, power-hungry, scheming politicos with ultra-radical-super-Marxist agendas and not an empathetic bone in their body, but possibly – and bear with me here – because they’d like to help fellow students and try to effect genuine positive change in the university for the 12,000 or so undergraduates who reside here at any given time. Nobody goes into CUSU because they get a hard-on from power; after all, there’s so little power to be had. If they did go in with those intentions, they’d find them quickly thwarted by the horrendous amounts of bureaucracy which Cambridge University manages to put in the way of any form of change.

But of course, they don’t represent us. This seems, on face value, like a fair argument. After all, very few students vote in elections, and sometimes those elections are unopposed. However, I don’t think mandates are usually what people are getting at. We’re more concerned with the general feeling that CUSU don’t really do anything the students actually want done. This would be a legitimate grievance if, you know, there was any kind of united student opinion on what we want done and it was being expressed by the student population at large. Most students, most of the time, don’t give even a fifth of a shit. They’re happy as long as nothing is going horrendously wrong for them (and I’ll return to that in a minute).

‘But the autonomous campaigns are actively espousing political views which I don’t agree with,’ comes the response. Sure, but they’re autonomous, funded but not endorsed by CUSU and primarily run by ordinary students. If you don’t like what any of these campaigns are doing and don’t think they represent you (and you care whether they do), then change them – they’re controlled by students, after all. The other thing worth considering is that for most people in the university, most of these campaigns aren’t trying to represent you. Most of them have small targeted groups whose lives they are trying to better. If you are part of one of these demographics and don’t feel that the campaigns are representing you, then that’s a legitimate grievance. However, the response that you could probably change that state of affairs if you really wanted to (and let’s be honest, you probably don’t; we’re all profoundly apathetic) still stands.

If CUSU sabbs aren’t spending their time furthering an anarcho-feminist-marxist-collectivist agenda, and they’re not sitting around thinking how best they can piss off the student population, then what are they doing?

‘Nobody knows’, comes the reply. Whilst I’m not the biggest fan of the ‘educate yourself’ line so often used within leftist movements to shut down discourse, it’s not fair TO criticise CUSU on the basis that you don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not hard to find out. Although the public face seems to be primarily concerned with organising protest buses (which were probably actually fairly representative of the views of a lot of students, say, two years ago when the fees protests were ongoing) there’s an awful lot done behind the scenes which simply wouldn’t be possible at college level.

Remember this?

Have you ever wondered why the people heavily involved in the Women’s Campaign seem to talk about rape and sexual violence and almost nothing else? That’s likely because they literally spend most of their time advocating on behalf of student victims of rape and abuse and providing them with support, as the Welfare officer does for all sorts of other things. Whilst JCR welfare officers are usually well-intentioned and caring, they certainly don’t have the level of training or the time required to deal with these situations, hence the existence of dedicated sabbatical officers who spend a year making sure that the University – and the world at large – doesn’t get to run rough-shod over students. Having sabbs at every college would be absurd – only one college has a JCR president who’s a sabbatical officer, and you only need to look at the comments on any Tab article to see how well that’s going.

We don’t have a student union bar, and CUSU don’t run many centralised events, primarily due to the decentralised nature of the Cambridge system. CUSU are invisible most of the time because most of the time you don’t need them. When you do need them – for support, advice, for advocacy against the University – they are there, and they will help.

They might seem ineffectual in efforts to create change. I have more sympathy than most for them here, having experienced the way the University responds to complaints and calls for change. Cambridge is an 800-year old, famously conservative institution which changes extremely slowly and only with great resistance. Don’t blame CUSU for that.

If you want to criticise CUSU, you can criticise the extreme left-wing politics and the way that certain elements of it promote cognitive shutdown and refusal to engage in debate through the advocation of absurd No Platform policies. Criticise the members of autonomous campaigns who brook no deviation from an established radical orthodoxy. Don’t criticise the efforts of people who put a year or more of their lives into helping students facing difficulties and trying to make Cambridge a better place.