The Tab Meets: CUSU

We did it so you don’t have to


A whole year has passed since Helen Hoogewerf-McComb was elected CUSU president, winning a hard fought campaign against RON by only 500 votes. Raising awareness of what CUSU does for the students it represents may seem like a Sisyphean task, but it’s not helped that on their shiny new website, Helen’s priorities are still ‘coming soon!’

Seriously though. It's been a whole year.

Seriously though that’s really bad.

Most students recognise CUSU’s role in access, and it undeniably does a great deal to try to encourage prospective applicants, with hundreds of undergraduates getting involved in this term’s shadowing scheme.

But beyond this, the mind is liable to go blank.

The fresher’s fair, yeah, that must take a lot of work. But that’s done after the first week of Michaelmas. How do they fill the rest of their year?

When I met CUSU to ask them this very question, two words come up a lot: ‘reports’, and ‘committees’. Helena Blair, the current Access officer, says “I’ve sat on a lot of committees and corrected members of University committees when they have glaring misconceptions about more vulnerable Cambridge students.”

The education officer Rob Richardson says he alone sits on around 15 committees, and much of Helen’s previous week was spent reading 700 pages of committee pages.

“A lot of it isn’t relevant to students, but in there you could have a little paragraph about something that would radically change a student’s experience. We are there to make sure students voices are heard.”

I ask them if it’s fair to say that students are apathetic about CUSU. Helen agrees. “I think a lot of students will say they do not know what we do and that leads to apathy, which is a problem across the whole generation of students at the moment because people don’t know what we do.”

But given this has particular problem has been around for years, what can be done now to change that?

Helen stresses the importance of face to face contact with students.

“There were more than 100 individual meetings with students in Michaelmas, regarding anything from troubles with supervisors, accommodation, or intermitting and failing exams.”

The welfare officer Jack Wright has a similar story. “I’ve done a lot of work on the disabled students campaign, and that’s gone quite slowly because everyone involved is a disabled Cambridge student and so has very little time or energy for anything else. I provide support so their campaigning efforts can come to something.

“And of course handing out hundreds and hundreds of condoms.”

And apparently two new inflatable sofas have been bought to get CUSU out there with students. Have they been seen?

CUSU freshers fair. Much freshers. Such fair. CUSU.

CUSU freshers fair. Much freshers. Such fair. CUSU.

But with a 14% turn out at the last election, how can CUSU represent the whole body of students? On this issue, Helen is bullish.

“Turnout in Student Union elections is not great across the board. Last year was particularly low because they were fewer candidates out doing campaigning. But we got 10% filling in a survey on the student experience last term. Actually, that’s a lot. Thats more than 2400 students.”

“Our policy is not decided by people in this room, it’s decided by JCR, MCR and faculty reps, and people from autonomous campaigns. Turnout for those elections is much higher, and they’re the ones making the decisions. We don’t get a vote.”

So what do colleges lose if they disaffiliate?

Helen’s answer surprises me.

“Not a huge amount.

“I’m really up front about that because we don’t want to be charging affiliation fees. We charge them because where other Russell Groups Student Union’s get £1.5 million pounds of funding from their university in a block grant, we get £2020 from the richest university in Europe.

“The reason I’m saying there’s not much difference if they disaffiliate is that no individual student service would be cut if a college disaffiliated. The thing you do lose out on is that if your JCR or MCR isn’t affiliated you don’t get a vote on what our policy is.”

The Coo-Suu team.

The Coo-Suu team.

Is being a sabbatical officer a full time job? There’s a resounding chorus of agreement.

And do they think they get paid too much? Helen says not. “We work 50 hours a week, and we are payed about the level of a PhD stipend which is difficult to live on in Cambridge.”

A lot of work that CUSU does goes unseen. It’s therefore very difficult for students to know how important CUSU’s role is, and what would happen if it disappeared. This doesn’t promote engagement, and it’ll take more than a couple of sofas to change that.

But apathy works both ways. If you complain about not knowing what CUSU does, but don’t read the emails that Helen sends you every week, is that her fault or is it yours?

Hopefully this week’s more contested elections will reignite interest.

The priorities for the year ahead really are ‘coming soon.’

Voting for all the sabbatical positions is open today. It’s an interesting race.