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Does Student Government Matter?

The Girton JCR President weighs in.

cambridge student politics CUSU JCR

In Cambridge, it’s fair to say that student politics is rarely at the forefront of students’ minds.

Many of us are only reminded of CUSU’s existence when we sporadically receive one of their occasional, impersonal mass emails (which will immediately be consigned to the trash folder), and after the annual Freshers’ Fair has concluded, most will be left scratching their head when asked just what our central student union gets up to. Even in a more local context, it’s sometimes easy to forget college JCR and MCR committees, elected each year with the intention of tackling more college specific issues.

But do these organisations matter? Are they really bastions of student opinion, working valiantly to cut rent, fight entrenched inequality, and enrich practical provisions? Or do they just provide opportunities for a select few to boost their egos, score easy CV points, and indulge in the perks of the position, which often include free formals, free stash and even rent discounts?

Let’s begin with CUSU.

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The Cambridge University Students' Union is run by a team of six elected sabbatical officers, for whom student politics is a full-time job with a salary of just over £20,000 a year. With no academic commitments eating up their time, you’d be right to expect a lot from them and, in many ways, they do deliver. The annual Freshers’ Fair is an excellent event, allowing societies from across the university to advertise and recruit new members, and the CUSU Shadowing Scheme is a vital provision for improving access. In University Council, CUSU representatives were key advocates of the class lists opt-out option and the university’s commitment to paying the living wage, both introduced in the last year.

However, a lot of CUSU’s time is spent on seemingly pointless endeavours. The prime example is CUSU Council – a fortnightly event marketed as the official decision-making body of CUSU, where JCR and MCR presidents debate and vote on purportedly important CUSU decisions. Unfortunately, this isn’t really the case. Discussions usually feel like a competition to see who can hold the floor for the longest without contributing anything meaningful and voting often highlights rather fickle decision-making – my favourite example being when a motion for supporting the People’s Vote was discussed. Many rousing speeches were made in favour and support for the policy seemed near universal. We were preparing for a vote which seemed almost certain to pass, when out of nowhere the council decided it didn’t have enough information and the vote was delayed by two weeks.

Such proposals often involve grandiose political statements, rather than tackling real issues that impact students’ lives and experiences – and therein lies CUSU’s main fallacy. Trying to extrapolate student opinion on Brexit and government policies, even with the best intentions, is not much use when nobody is listening; the government certainly isn’t. CUSU would do well to focus on what it does best: campaigning for solutions to student issues in Cambridge. In my completely unbiased opinion as Girton’s JCR President, lobbying for better transport links to far-out colleges is a good place to start.

It'll be good for tourism, if nothing else

Next, the JCRs and MCRs of Cambridge.

These committees act to represent students in their respective colleges and serve as the first rung on the ladder for any aspiring student politico. High on the list of priorities for any half-decent combination room committee are ent hosting, room balloting and solid welfare provisions, forming the bread and butter of JCR endeavours. The quality of these services is how a committee is judged and expectations are always high, so god help any ents officer who forgets to run an underground at least once a term.

Despite this, is can be argued that more important issues are tackled behind the scenes. Student rent is a particularly thorny issue that has hit the headlines recently and is something that affects us all; from my experience, a good JCR committee can make all the difference in opposing unaffordable rent rise, while the converse also rings true. Not that long ago, the JCR rent negotiation strategy at Girton was to shout loudly at the Bursar in the hope that they’d realise the error of their ways and abandon their proposed rent hikes – unsurprisingly, this strategy failed and led to three consecutive 10% increases. It was only recently that a more thorough, detailed JCR proposal led to a proposed rent increase being slashed by over half – demonstrating why it really is important for student representatives to champion these causes.

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A selection of Girton's JCR in their action poses.

To answer my initial question, it seems the efficacy and prominence of student government in Cambridge very much depends on the people we elect and how they choose to run things.

There are always problems to solve and policies to pioneer, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure we have good student representatives, whether through the ballot box or by having the motivation to run for positions ourselves.

Student politics might not be the most inspiring endeavour, but its potential for good is undeniable.