We’re actually talking about that other union.
It’s “the university-wide representative body for students at the University of Cambridge”.
CUSU is run by six full-time elected Sabbatical Officers (Sabbs) and assisted by a nameless and faceless team of administrative staff (I’d be more specific but CUSU’s Staff-Student Protocol prevents anyone naming the staff). Current President Amatey Doku tells me this Sabb team wants to push for accessibility for everyone: “I think one thing that everyone is very keen to do is make sure that Cambridge fits all students.”
For most students CUSU is just there to provide all the free condoms and lube you could ever need. Other than that, the general consensus is that its intrusions are mainly unwelcome and come in the form of once-yearly elections, ever-escalating referenda and the weekly email from Amatey. That said, CUSU does – theoretically at least – very much have the power to shape students’ experiences. As the main representation of student body on University Committees, it’s our voice in influencing how the University allocates resources, decides teaching standards and makes a myriad of other decisions that affect students every day.
Representatives of the Women’s, LGBT+, International Students, BME and Disabled Students’ Campaigns vote alongside college JCR and MCR representatives at CUSU Council to mandate what policy the Sabbs implement. CUSU Council, held twice a term, is the main forum for deciding CUSU policy, but is normally poorly publicised and attended and the motions rarely generate debate or dissent. Accusations that it’s an undemocratic echo-chamber, while exaggerated, contain more than a grain of truth. To fix the operation of CUSU Council, Amatey has suggested a new committee, made up of a subset of JCR and MCR representatives who will increase the scrutiny of how the Sabbs are implementing CUSU Council Policy, and argues for a “dynamic” approach to policy.
Outgoing President Priscilla Mensah made use of her unprecedented mandate and made a mark on the University, championing the abolition of class lists at CUSU Council. But while CUSU certainly can’t be accused of being ineffective, the class lists issue has brought up another frequent criticism, that it’s out of step with popular opinion. Certainly polls would suggest that the class lists issue is significantly more divisive than CUSU Council’s vote appears to show.
Disaffiliation is to CUSU what confusing traditions are to Cambridge. Concern that the National Union of Students’ newly elected President, Malia Bouattia, made – and then refused to apologise for – anti-Semitic remarks saw Exam Term disrupted by a close-run and occasionally bitter campaign to disaffiliate from the NUS. Despite the pro-affiliation campaign strongly urging Cambridge to reform from within, four months on, it doesn’t seem like much has changed within the NUS. Amatey has promised to challenge the “failings” of the NUS from the inside, noting “it would be highly hypocritical of a students’ union such as CUSU – which has a similar affiliation structure, as it were – to advocate running away”. He floated the idea of drafting policies to take to the NUS, a Cambridge-first, and asked students who were concerned about anti-Semitism at Cambridge to come to CUSU.
After the NUS referendum failed, colleges launched collexit campaigns (Pexit, Quexit, to name a few) to disaffiliate from CUSU. Colleges like Caius and Corpus have long been disaffiliated and avoid paying CUSU fees. While they lose their CUSU Council vote, individual students remain affiliated to CUSU and can use its services. Ultimately, disaffiliation doesn’t really affect students, but is a huge headache for CUSU, depriving them of a much-needed income stream.
For every student that’s irritated with what CUSU does (and there are a quite a few, one anonymous Cantab told us her reaction to CUSU was “Fuck off you bureaucratic dementors”), there are five that are highly apathetic. A survey over the summer put it as the third worst student union in the country, only satisfying 37% of Cantabs. This is partly because CUSU is competing with college JCRs and MCRs in providing services to students but also because CUSU doesn’t have a great record. At anything. Financial management is a great example. Highlights of their past few years of budgetary incompetence include:
- For the 2015-16 financial year CUSU had a nearly £5000 budget deficit, despite being previously warned that their income projections were unrealistic
- Last September, CUSU begged the university for an insane £100,000 bailout after they themselves decided to terminate a £40,000 contract for The Guide to Excellence – a book which chronicled the superlative 50-year history of CUSU itself.
- In a bid to rescue their budget, CUSU killed off the print edition of The Cambridge Student last year, despite the editorial team offering to take responsibility for finding sponsorship off of CUSU’s hands and alleging that they were being punished for the failings of CUSU staff
While Amatey is leading a review into CUSU’s constitution, processes, “everything” this year, it’s not certain how much will change. He’s in charge of a Governance Review which will look “right from the very bottom at how this organisation works”. It’s all up for debate, and he seems eager to get as many students as possible involved. While he defended CUSU’s financial record, arguing that it gets far less funding than most other unions, he did say that the situation is “not impossible, we function well, there’s certainly no mismanagement of any kind”.
But even if the governance review does miraculously reverse years of CUSU backflips and incomprehensible decisions, that’s only one part of what’s contentious about it. The other major headline is its several ‘autonomous’ campaigns, dedicated to the liberation of various marginalised groups within the university. Nominally uncontrolled by the sabbatical officers, although as trustees of a charity, they have a legal duty to exercise some control, they’re often the cause of CUSU grabbing the headlines.
Revelations last year that female Cambridge students were trading and offering prescription drugs via a WomCam facebook group originally named “CUSU WomCam Self-Care Tips”. Some of the 1000 members on the group – moderated by CUSU’s autonomous Women’s Campaign – were engaged in the dangerous, although not illegal, practice and joked about. While CUSU quickly distanced themselves from the practice, refusing to endorse the practice, questions were raised about the oversight of the five elected officers who were members of the Facebook group.
Other campaigns – against Germaine Greer’s appearance at the Union in early 2015 and David Starkey’s appearance in Cambridge promotional material last November – have also polarised the student body. When asked whether the Sabbs should have more oversight of these campaigns, Amatey was emphatically against it. “Whatever ‘reputational risks’ are associated with [autonomous campaigns], I think CUSU should be in a position that it should back up those campaigns,” he said, as, by definition, the campaigns are likely to be bringing up issues which are “unpopular” with the majority.
Last year, Priscilla was described as “less a politician than a bureaucrat…exactly what CUSU needs”. Under her team’s reign, engagement with CUSU – one measure of satisfaction – did improve. Amatey is an advocate, with an ambitious outlook and a pragmatic view of how to get things done. The new Sabb team is enthusiastic, was elected on platforms with specific policies and seem to be eager to get changes implemented. It remains to be seen whether the relentless Cambridge bureaucracy and fragmented and clashing student views will hold them back. Looking back on how CUSU has handled those challenges in the past, it seems that the best approach is cautious pessimism.
Looking back on how CUSU has handled those challenges in the past, it seems that the best approach is cautious pessimism.