Absent: 80% of CUSU Council votes go uncast

Louise Ashwell and Dominic Kelly 23 November 2013

The Cambridge Student has learnt that on average only one in five registered voting members have voted in CUSU Council this term, amid calls at various colleges for disaffiliation. This is despite its status as the only body where students can directly influence decisions made by the university.

The CUSU Constitution states that “colleges where both a JCR and MCR exist shall each be represented at Council by their respective Presidents”, or, it adds, by an External Officer. But after consulting this term’s CUSU Council voting records and its internal percentages on numbers of votes, TCS has found that on average only one in four college representatives have attended this term’s three CUSU Council meetings. 11 of the remaining CUSU affiliated colleges have not sent a single representative this term, including all of the University’s graduate colleges. The record for attendance is particularly low among MCRs. Nine out of ten of the University’s MCR representatives did not attend CUSU Council this term.

All CUSU campaigns and sabbatical officers are bound by the mandates of Council, according to the CUSU Constitution. College representatives to CUSU Council include JCR and MCR Presidents and for some colleges, a specific External Officer elected by the college body. Each college is therefore entitled to three votes per CUSU council session, but not a single college has sent enough voters to cast all of these. Trinity Hall has cast the greatest number of votes – seven over three sessions – with Homerton, Sidney Sussex and St John’s coming next at six, casting two votes each at every CUSU Council meeting.

Pembroke is one of just six colleges which has sent representatives to every CUSU Council session. Asked about his motives for voting, former JPC President Harry McNeill Adams said: “I attended Council because it was the only forum in which I could represent Pembroke students at a University level and because it’s important to support CUSU’s political role as well as its welfare role. If we don’t, Cambridge students would lose and voice on political issues which affect them.

“I would encourage all JCR Presidents and External Officers to go to CUSU Council. If those who don’t attend at the moment did so, CUSU wouldn’t be so unrepresentative.”

Each Faculty is supposed to send along an elected student representative, but for the last three meetings, of the University’s faculties, only the History, PPS and AMES Faculty representatives have been in attendance. Representatives of CUSU’s autonomous campaigns, which include the Women’s, LGBT, International, Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) and Disabled Students’ Campaigns, also hold one vote each, as does the Graduate Union President, Richard Jones. Only one vote by the iCUSU President has been cast in this term’s three meetings so far.

The limited attendance of CUSU Council voting members has impacted on recent CUSU Council matters. At least a quarter of registered representatives registered with the Chair have to vote for a motion to past.

The minimum number of votes to pass a motion is 18 votes either way. This left a motion brought regarding the deportation of Trenton Oldfield ending with no decision after only 23 votes were cast, 12 of which were abstentions. This lack of involvement has also been felt in CUSU’s various campaigns, in which any student can run. At last Council’s Part-Time Exec elections on 11 November, only six of the 23 positions available had any candidate stand, with only one being contested. Completely uncontested and currently unfilled positions due to a lack of interest included the entire Access Team, the Mental Wellbeing Officer and Anti-Racism Officer.

A motion is being proposed at the next Council meeting by CUSU to mandate the sabbatical team to find a solution to these attendance issues.


Flick Osborn, CUSU President:

I’m really pleased that we’re having a dialogue about CUSU Council. Council is CUSU’s sovereign policy setting body, directing the sabbatical team. The sabbatical officers find out what the student body think through your elected representatives; we rely on this representative model, alongside everyday discussions with students, in our day to day activities as sabbs.

Having highlighted Council’s importance, let’s not beat around the bust: it needs reform. Some valuable improvements have been made to Council over the last year – it’s less formal and more accessible to non-voting members. However, it’s clear that it doesn’t appeal enough to students and representatives at present, and it’s time it changed.

I can’t overemphasise that Council is open to all students. Don’t withdraw because you don’t like the tone of debate; come and contribute. Communicative and challenging debate is vital to all that CUSU does. The sabb team will be proposing changes, but we realise this is a two-way process. CUSU needs more students to come to Council, and to ensure that Council works more effectively for all students.

Jamie Wilmon, President of Corpus Christi JCR (which is disaffiliated from CUSU):

The disconnect between CUSU and the JCRs of Cambridge stems from their differing focuses: JCRs offer almost all of the front-line services that a student is likely to engage with. CUSU on the other hand takes on big-picture challenges. This is vital work, and needs to be done.

The problem is, however, that CUSU also attempts to offer service to students: welfare, advice, condoms, etc. These services are too often perceived as redundant in comparison to those offered by JCRs. When the question is framed in terms of value for money, the affiliation fees are unjustifiable.

CUSU, under the clear leadership of Flick, recognise this. They have shifted the terms of the debate to focus on the vital representative work that CUSU does. CUSU themselves recognise that affiliation fees are not worth the money: they’re campaigning for a block grant from the university to replace them, and this is a good thing. But in the meantime, being told that your JCR should keep paying £6.70 per undergraduate for an organisation to “protect your interests” feels more like a protection racket than democracy.