Reducing fees won’t solve the Union’s accessibility problem
The Cambridge Union’s reduced membership fee is a step in the right direction, but its accessibility problem lies deeper than this
A few hours after A-level results were released and offer holders became freshers-in-waiting, the Union were quick to lure in potential customers with a widely welcomed announcement. Full membership fees are to be reduced from £199 to £150, with annual membership costing £99, rather than £115. Perhaps more significantly, there is now an “access membership” available at £99, which acts as lifetime membership for financially eligible students. Clearly, the Union is making an effort to confront a long running problem of accessibility – an encouraging sign. But how will the changes actually add up behind the headline?
First of all, as a Cambridge undergrad you will have to be eligible for a full maintenance grant or loan (depending on when you matriculated) and a full Newton Trust bursary in order to qualify for access membership. In 2015/16, 1597 out of 12220 undergraduates received full Newton Trust bursaries, meaning just over 13% of undergraduates would have been eligible for access membership. This is clearly more than a token figure, but we will have to wait and see how significant the uptake of access membership will be.
There of course remains a problem of how and when payments are made. Both £99 and £150 are still significant lump sums to sacrifice, and students have to commit to membership before 11th October for the reduced rate. The free-of-charge Open Period is of course available, but how many freshers will realistically prioritise trying out the Union this early into term? Even if they do, how representative of an average term will this week be? So, as well as risking money on a membership you may not use, there is now additional pressure to commit to this early to avoid paying extra.
We cannot generalise about student expenditure – ultimately, it’s up to the individual as well as the Union to make membership worthwhile by turning up to talks and debates. However, the Union’s accessibility problem is not only financial, but social and cultural.
Too often, the Union has slipped into a caricature of itself, overwhelmed by the waft of personal political ambition and scandal. The smear campaign that overshadowed the most recent election is a perfect example of this. Even the idea of an “election campaign” seems grandiose, when fewer than 500 out of 6000 resident members voted in the most recent election. The Union risks being perceived as a self-selecting club, which deters those who could initiate change from getting involved, thus perpetuating the problem.
Its image is essentially one of privilege. Debates occur in black tie and speakers tend to be white, male, and usually bald. Debating itself is a rather public school sport. Of course, this isn’t entirely the Union’s fault but rather reflects a lack of diversity in British politics. There’s also a case for defending tradition and formality, but that tradition wouldn’t come under attack if it seemed more accessible and less self-serving.
In fairness, the last term card was widely praised for its wealth of high-profile speakers including Bernie Sanders, Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry. At its heart, the Union must encourage debate and the development of ideas. More needs to be done to diversify speakers, but in many ways the Union serves its purpose. This makes it all the more a shame that the Union suffers from an image problem that deters many from taking the opportunities it offers.
At the moment it is stuck in a vicious circle: it can only really engage students if they attend, but students will only attend if they feel engaged.
The reduction of fees does provide a partial remedy, but more will need to be done to change the Union’s culture, especially at the level of the standing committee.