Reflections on the CUSU elections – claims, facts, and moving towards a more effective student unionism.

Disclaimer: This post may read a little bit incoherently at times. I wrote part of this as an article for the student press during the recent elections as an attempt to balance what was overwhelming negative coverage. Surprisingly enough, this piece was rejected by the papers, with one telling me “there is enough balance coverage out there, so we don’t need to publish this.” Right. Other parts were written in the aftermath of the elections, and are more reflective, and as a result this is going to be a long one. I will be putting a TL:DR summary, but at the end cos I’m a sadist. 

Introduction:Watching this year’s CUSU elections has been a depressing affair. I guess watching the way in which the student body responds to CUSU can be depressing at the best of times; as someone who wasted away to almost nothing working for CUSU last year, it’s a pain in the arse to hear the usual claims of “CUSU does nothing,” or “CUSU is shit,” bellowed from the student papers or plastered on the internet. For those of you who weren’t following the events too closely, here’s a summary in a nutshell. CUSU’s elections were for the six sabbatical officer positions as well as one of the GU sabbatical positions (president). Normally, most of these are contested. This year, however, only one of the positions was contested (Access & Funding) and there was no candidates for two of the most important positions (Welfare & Rights, my old job) and Coordinator (the money and logistics positions). The student media, namely the Tab, had a bit of a field day. There was a campaign to RON (re-open nominations) for all positions. Commentators, namely Charlie Bell, a decidedly odd and deeply self promotional individual, published conjecture and nonsense about the organisation (this article was originally meant to respond to his article, which I won’t link to, but you can find it on the Tab website if you so please). The end result, however was that no one was RON’d, and new CUSU team were (mostly) elected.

I want to do a couple of things with this blog post. Firstly, I want to take issue with some of the claims made about CUSU in the context of this election, and more generally, and debunk them as best I can from the experiences of someone who worked as a sabbatical officer last year. Secondly, I want to try and call time on the general impasse that CUSU has reached with the student body, or at least, certain vocal elements of it, and suggest ways in which we might be able to resolve the whole matter.

Part 1: Facts and Claims
Let’s start with some claims and facts:

Claim #1: “CUSU sabbs are overpaid/underworked/both.”
Fact: This was a claim made by Mr Bell in his recent Tab article. Where he got the claim from I really can’t say – whilst he’s been involved with CUSU as LGBT+ President, he has never been a sabbatical officer, and judging by what he claimed, he hasn’t paid much attention to the CUSU sabbs working habits. Let’s set the record straight:  CUSU sabbs get paid around 17k a year. Take off taxes and student loan repayments and that comes to closer to 14k. Sabbs are contracted to work around 37 hours a week. You can find an example of a sabbatical officer job contract for CUSU here (coincidentally, this is the contract I signed when I became Welfare & Rights Officer in 2012). In reality, sabbs work a lot longer hours. I regularly left CUSU at 10 or 11pm at night, having arrived about 9am, due to the amount that I needed to do. Similarly, I worked pretty much every weekend between August/September last year in the lead up to Freshers’ Week, and worked many weekends after that. This is not a-typical for sabbs. CUSU sabbs regularly work evenings and weekends, and much longer hours than they are contractually obliged. The pay is, in this light, not massive. Similarly, if you compare CUSU sabb salaries to those at other Russel Group Unions, they are minimal – some sabbs get around £20 k or more for the same job.

On the issue of work – each sabb has a vast portfolio of tasks: campaigning, events, practical management of, say, shadowing or sexual health, University committees, working with the NUS/UCU and in the case of Welfare, Womens’ and Education, a vast amount of one to one student support. On top of this, due to CUSU having comparatively few staff, much of the sabbs time is taken up with basic admin tasks that sabbs at other Unions can delegate to staff. At the end of last year, I had lost 2 stone due to stress, and, according to my GP, the reason I almost died from a ruptured appendix was due to overwork. And I’m not atypical.

Claim #2: “CUSU does nothing!”
Fact: Let’s imagine a world without CUSU:

1) The University would still be banning intermitted/degraded students from living in the City of Cambridge. The City mind, not the University.
2) Tutorial staff, one of the front line support services for students, would not be receiving welfare training (something I’ve written about the dire need for elsewhere). Don’t think this is a big deal? Look at the testimonies on Cambridge Speaks Its Mind about some of the abuses of the tutor system.
3) Several thousand odd students who were helped by the Advice Service would most likely be in a worse off positions (here is a link to the Annual Reports of the Student Advice Service. Sadly, only two years worth are up here but it gives an idea of the amount of work that goes into the Service.)
4)There would be no shadowing scheme, and I know, and I’m sure you know, plenty of people who applied to Cambridge as a result of the scheme.
5) There would be no universal sexual health scheme. Individual colleges might offer free contraception, but it would be an unequal provision based on college wealth.

Those are just the first five examples to pop into my head whilst writing this. Give me ten minutes and some more energy and I could probably give some more. Let’s compare this to some of the things CUSU doesn’t do:

1) Events – Most people would expect this of a Students Union. The “SU” is a space for entertainment: live music, bands, comedy, club nights and so on. My first experience of a Students Union was catching the latest metal bands on tour at the Manchester SU.
2) Offer a social hub to students. The CUSU offices are a dim, windowless hell hole in a corner of the New Museum Site, with oddly clinical lighting and virtually no space for communal student activity. There is no SU building in the sense one might expect from a Union. No place to work communally, no place for events, and so on. 

Obviously, the fact that the two things listed above are not qualities of CUSU is pretty shit. I can certainly speak for my team when I say that CUSU dearly wanted to provide these – but without the capacity or resources, it proved impossible. Now, we could have ignored the previous five points to offer the latter two…but would that have been a good decision? No. Would it be great if CUSU could provide those? Yes.

Claim #3: “Ronning all candidates would have been a great idea.”
Fact: RON is re-open nomination, not “none of the above.” In that sense it is less of a protest vote as simply a call for another election. You are fully within your democratic right to RON people, but I’d suggest doing so because you think the people standing for the positions are not good enough, not because you read something online and thought Lol, take that CUSU. Also, a RON vote across the board just means another election, and whilst there will be a by-election, if you really find CUSU all that annoying, do you want to be bothered by more electioneering when you could have put some perfectly good people in office?

Claim #4: “The fact that several of the CUSU positions had no candidates means CUSU is awful/disengaged/no body cares.

Fact:  Recently, I tried to organise a house party. I set a date well in advance, I invited all my friends, planned an evening of fun and drinks, made everything ready for a great night with friends…and no one turned up. A few people offered last minute apologies, but most people just didn’t show, apart from, amusingly, a crowd of about five Moldovians, only one of whom I knew. Does this mean I have no friends? Probably best not to answer that. What is shows, by however poor an analogy, is that engagement is a two way process. You can promote stuff all you want, but if people don’t respond, there’s not much you can do without a fundamental shift in resources. As I will point out below, resources is not something CUSU has a great deal of. With particular reference to the elections, a fair point was made by a friend of mine that most of the promotion for the CUSU elections comes from a) the student meda, and b) the candidates themselves. If the former has decided that they are only going to cover the elections in a negative light, and the latter is a much smaller group of people than one might expect, it stands to reason that the elections will not recieve the kind of coverage that one would expect. Again, this is not the fault of CUSU – the organisation did all it could to encourage people to stand. Indeed, I can confirm that for one of the positions that had no candidates when voting opened, there were, in fact, three people interested, who pulled out for a variety of personal and academic reasons. 
I imagine people didn’t stand for a variety of reasons, of which “I don’t care about CUSU” is only one. Maybe people thought the job was too hard (trust me, it’s a killer). Maybe they thought better people would run for it? A common reason for not running is based in the fact that sabbatical officers can stand for two terms of office, as set by law. If there is a perception that, let’s say, the Welfare & Rights Officer is doing a good job, and that they might be thinking of a second term of office, then why would people want to fix what’s not broken? Furthermore, despite these dark economic times, most Cambridge students, by virtue of attending a top University, are more employable than their counterparts (as unfair as this is). If you had the choice between a very difficult, low paying job, and a job that might satisfy a desire to help others but paid better in, say, a national charity, then why would you necessarily chose the former? What I’m saying ias that CUSU can do more to get people involved, but people also need to respond.

Claim #5: “CUSU has loads of money! Why does it want more?”
Fact: Varsity reported that CUSU’s expenditure was £600,000. Which sounds like a lot. What it didn’t offer was a breakdown of that figure – how much is spent on rent for the pitiful little office on the New Museum site? How much covers staffing costs (salaries are mostly set by the University)? How much on heating and upkeep? I recall from my year, my budget for welfare was around £2000. For everything, from printing training materials to events. To put this in context – most Russel Group SUs have block grants from the University ranging between the high hundreds of thousands to the millions. Sheffield, I believe, gets about £2.6 million a year. And most SUs have buildings. CUSU has none of these things.

CUSU is funded through an affiliation fee model – College JCRs and MCRs “affiliate” to CUSU and pay a fee based on the numbers in their student body. This comes as a results of the fact that CUSU receives no block grant from the University, so its only option is to fund itself by this model. Is the affiliation fees model shit? yes! Does CUSU want to get rid of it? Yes! Will the University give CUSU a block grant so it can actually overcome some of these issues? Only if we as a student body demand it. And we should.
Claim #6: “CUSU elections turn outs are always low, therefore, CUSU is crap/pathetic”
Fact: I base this claim on anecdotal evidence, but more specifically on a comment made on the Tab’s Elections Blog, found here. The Tab claim that the 14.1 % turnout is “pathetic.” Clearly, the Tab have not done their comparative research. A swift Google will bring up copies of the CUSU elections reports, which are brought to CUSU council every Easter Term. For the sake of it, I’ve picked out the report from the year I was elected, which you can read for yourself here. On page 9 of this document, one can see a helpful chart of turnouts for CUSU elections. The 2014-15 elections saw a turn out of around 3,000; this is significantly more than the 2006 turnout and the 2010 turnout. So certainly not the lowest ever, and not low enough to make such a fuss. Still pretty pathetic, I hear you cry? Certainly…until you read these statistics in light of the national average. On the same page of this report, you can find that the average turnout in elections for Russell Group Universities is 15.3%, and the average turnout over the whole HE sector 13.8%. In light of these stats, the CUSU stats aren’t that shocking or noteworthy. Indeed, it seems that the whole HE sector has a problem with student turnout. Does this mean, therefore, that every other SU in the country faces the same criticisms as CUSU? Even at Unions which achieve top results in the NSS, the turnout for voting is still pretty rubbish. It would appear conceivable then, that students can care a lot about their SU and still not vote in the elections in massive droves.

Part two: Towards a More Effective Student Unionism

I saw a friend posting on Facebook recently that the amount of RON votes for the CUSU elections “sent a clear mandate.” Did it? The flaw with a RON campaign, in my opinion, is that voters don’t have the option for saying why they are voting RON when voting. You could be voting RON because you agree with Charlie Bell, or because you have some other gripe with CUSU. It might be that you vote RON because you’ve had a good look at the candidate(s) and you decide that the person(s) standing were not very good. In this sense, RON votes don’t give a “clear” mandate. They give us a sense that something is wrong, but not even specifically where the fault lies.

But let’s face it – CUSU has a problem. It’s not, however, a problem of CUSU’s making. When I’ve been debating with people about CUSU, most of them seem to hate “CUSU” rather than the concept of a Students Union. What this suggests is that CUSU needs to become more like a “students union” in the popular conception – which as I have said above, is something it wants to do. But without a block grant, and without a building, which let’s face it, most other students unions have, CUSU has hit a brick wall in terms of its capacity.

I’ll give you a personal example: I really tried to make the effort to go to colleges when I was a sabb. I wanted to be able to rock up to open meetings, chat directly to my electorate, support them on a local and University level. I also dearly wanted to get things going on a proper tutor training programme. Instead, however, I increasingly found myself swamped with students in our Advice Service; I supported just under 100 during my term, if memory serves. By supported, I didn’t just listen to their problems; I had to help them write letters, understand complex regulations, navigate the complexities of Cambridge, and often found myself sitting up late studying various areas of law and University policy. I often had to argue with senior members of colleges and the University, who were being unmovable and, in many cases, acting in manners that would, inadvertently or otherwise, damage a student’s well being. This was highly rewarding, but God did it drain me. It was enough work for a full 9-5 job, but then add onto that trying to run a full sexual health scheme, train welfare officers, work on tutor training campaigns, run four different support groups, put my bit into major projects such as teaching and learning, liaise with the increasingly problematic Grad Union, attend dozens of committee meetings and something has to give. And it does. Sadly, it was the whole “Going into colleges and being an approachable sabb.” I regret that I couldn’t do this as much as I promised people I would during elections. But I was working flat out, and as I mentioned earlier, it nearly killed me. Now, if, say, my Union had had more funding, so that our Advice Service was mainly staff run, rather than the sabbatical officers taking on huge amounts of casework, then I would have had a bit more time. If, say, I’d had a small staff team I could have sat down with when I had a campaign aim, who would helped me put things into motion, then I would have had a bit more time.

Now, I give that example because it is emblematic of what happens in the CUSU office. Whatever you think about CUSU, the sabbs work pretty damn hard. And we never had capacity to do more on top of that. If CUSU is going to break out of this deadlock, it’s going to need to change but it can only change if it has the resources to do so.

A final thought. I hear a lot of people saying “I don’t know what CUSU does for me. ” I’ve had a variety of views on this topic over the years but the one which comes to mind now is: on the one hand, it can be suggested that this highlights a fact that CUSU is crap and promoting itself. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t trying. Theres a Facebook page,  a twitter account, a weekly email bulletin and so on. In addition to this, CUSU is often reliant on JCR and MCR reps to feedback on the work that CUSU does to the colleges. However, if we put this in context that, as TCS reported a few months ago,  many reps don’t attend CUSU meetings, it becomes understandable that CUSU isn’t the most brilliantly publicised project. However, just on this latter point I’d suggest that its not a sign of a good JCR/MCR Rep if they don’t attend CUSU meeting, no matter how personally they might not wish to, particularly if this is part of their role remit.
On the other hand: what would you prefer: an SU which is using its limited capacity to tell you about all the things it does,  or an SU which does those things with the same limited capacity?  Personally I prefer the latter. And sadly this isn’t going to change unless there is a fundamental shift in the way the University funds CUSU, which, I firmly believe will only occur when the great mass of students demand it. 
The TLDR version:
1) Most of the claims about CUSU are wrong
2) CUSU does damn good stuff. 
3) CUSU wants to do more but can’t without the resources.  Therfore let’s get CUSU a block grant. 
4) When reading what Charlie Bell has to say about CUSU,  bear in mind it might be a piece of creative writing.  
P.s: I was made aware recently that one of my earlier posts was ripped off in a recent article in the student media. Whilst the article was longer, its argument and line of thinking was alarmingly similar to mine. To the person who did this: write your own damn stuff. Thanks. 

6 thoughts on “Reflections on the CUSU elections – claims, facts, and moving towards a more effective student unionism.

  1. well done for having the courage to post this I am simply sick of people trying to ruin CUSU with there nonsense if they actually took the time to read about what the student union does they might think twice about noncense like RON.

    I have tried to work with Charlie Bell before and he is basically homophobic and does not care about LGBTQA+ rights but I didnt think he was self promotional just greedy and only bothered about publishing his binarist articles.

    I hope you're appendix is better I have been ill too thank god you guys have the NHS!!!!


  2. Chris Page you disgust me. You say you care about Cambridge? Throw yourself under a fucking bus and rid us of another lefty faggot.


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