10 things I hate about Cambridge: CUSU — and not just because everyone else does

In his first column, JACK MAY takes aim at CUSU, and fires the kind of shade the likes of which Cambridge has never seen.

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I’ll be honest with you, Tab readers. I am a traitor.

I’ve spent the past two years of my life working for The Cambridge Student (TCS), that newspaper you spot sometimes in the faculty library and find yourself using as a coaster the next week.

I edited that paper twice, have been on its pompous-sounding Board of Directors for over a year, and made most of my closest friends in the dank and dusky basement office CUSU saw fit to give us.

For what it’s worth, TCS actually gave me a shred of respect for CUSU. Working in the same building as them for two years, I’ve seen first-hand that your sabbatical officers work incredibly hard (or at least I think they do, judging by the amount of complaining they do).

TCS is the most accessible part of what CUSU does. With editors, writers, photographers, illustrators, fashion models, and a whole plethora of other different people, more students get involved with CUSU through TCS than via any other conduit.

Brave journalism and coaster

Putting all that sympathy aside, let me tell you what it’s really like to work alongside such a spectacular bunch of incompetents. The ‘inside scoop’, if you like.

For one thing, you know it’s bad when a sabbatical officer paid in excess of £20,000 per annum, money that comes from your JCRs to the tune of about £6 each, includes “assisting with the handover of TCS email addresses” on a list of her achievements for the term.

To be clear, this takes about a minute, and involves copying and pasting a load of email addresses the Editor has sent her into a box. And yet somehow it managed to take that same officer two weeks to do it on at least one occasion.

But that’s beside the point. The key issue here, apparently, is that TCS is no longer the nice juicy cash cow it once was for CUSU.

Let’s disregard, for a moment, the fact that in a meeting on Tuesday we were presented with figures that showed TCS generating a profit for each of the past 10 years excepting 2015/16, with some profit margins as high as £20,000, milked off the backs of student volunteers into CUSU’s coffers.

Let’s disregard the fact that a carefully-costed proposal by TCS for vastly reduced costs and alternative revenue generation, drawn up in the midst of exam term with only days’ notice, was completely disregarded by CUSU’s Board of Trustees and cast off in the accompanying notes to this year’s budget with a mere; “The Board decided to continue with the proposed budget despite these proposals”.

TCS was like this, but with cash

Let’s instead focus on where all this comes from. In the interests of reducing it down to mind-numbing obviousness – the kind of idiot-friendly crude simplicity that CUSU Officers still don’t seem to be able to get their heads around – here’s what’s up: TCS’s costs (aka printing a paper) are too high, and it doesn’t bring in enough income through advertising.

‘They deserve it, the unmarketable bastards!’, comes the cry. Not quite. You see, TCS has absolutely no control over the financial side of its operation.

When you’re Editor-in-Chief, you don’t sell adverts, you don’t bring in revenue, and you don’t get a say over the budget.

If you’re interested in reducing costs by bringing down the print run, you can’t. I tried, and a CUSU Staff Member told me that it wasn’t possible, in order to remain “commercially competitive”. Their new spin on “a recognition of CUSU’s carbon footprint” is total bollocks – they’re the ones who stopped me bringing down the print run in 2015.

So we said to CUSU; ‘Hey guys, let us have a shot at running our own finances!’. Priscilla wasted a good while fixating on my word ‘shot’ like it was somehow personally offensive – which, given she filed an official complaint with no legal foundation to the supposedly ‘editorially independent’ TCS after I said she’d “jumped on the bandwagon […], leaping aboard as it trundles haphazardly down the optimistic yellow brick road to relevance”, isn’t entirely surprising – and then proceeded to shut us down.

In essence, TCS is being punished for something over which it has had no control, and over which it has explicitly been denied control.

Let’s talk, for a moment, about who is in charge of generating revenue for TCS. Let’s talk about the unelected CUSU staff who lurk behind the scenes. Now if you’re on the TCS Editorial Team, you get vague and ominous threats from CUSU Officers if you talk about mentioning individual non-elected CUSU Staff members in your writing to, say, single out their incompetence (three cheers for editorial independence!), but seeing a 6 months’ of complaints to elected officers have gone unanswered, it’s time to get serious.

These staff members are supposed to sell the adverts that go in copies of TCS (or ‘the TCS’ as they call it) and raise money. In my first days at TCS, they did alright, bringing in about four pages’ worth of advertising, raising enough to keep us ticking over. Sadly, times and personnel change, and six weeks’ into Michaelmas we were down to one tiny Domino’s advert a week. By midway through Lent Term, there were weeks with no adverts whatsoever. The sheer incompetence of it is almost incomprehensible.

But they aren’t the only ones. One CUSU staff member forgot to pay an invoice from the printers. I had a phone call saying that unless payment was received in the next few hours, they’d stop printing TCS entirely. Another CUSU staff member forgot to pay an invoice from our distributors. Chris – a great guy, who’s delivered TCS for years – had to embark on industrial action, and one issue of Michaelmas 2015 never made it to colleges and faculties, as he wasn’t paid for months on end. Just this week we were told that CUSU had failed to pay for our last paper – and endless cycle of incompetence.

Incompetence in CUSU? Shock. Horror.

So. Back to all these meetings. One of them started with an elected CUSU Sabbatical Officer smugly trying to eject me from a meeting on an untrue allegation that I’d be violating TCS’s constitution having written for the Tab. Another saw a Trustee laugh intermittently throughout an hour-long meeting in which we passionately made the case to give us a stake in our own future. For one, the Board of Trustees – by which I mean, those who could be bothered to come – were 15 minutes late. And in the final meeting, the Trustees laughed openly when I said that CUSU would have an easier time slashing TCS’ funding next year with me no longer around.

I spent 2 years working with CUSU so you don’t have to. Think of it as the ultimate ‘Tab Tries’, but make no mistake. This is a union of smug, self-serving incompetents whose disrespectful treatment of student volunteers is a shameful stain on Cambridge’s reputation.

If this University and its students had any idea as to the incompetence of our Union’s staff – elected or otherwise, they’d shut down CUSU, and splash it on the printed front page of the next TCS.