An interview with incoming CUSU president Evie Aspinall

Luke Hallam 12 August 2018

In addition to the day-to-day campaign to enhance student welfare, many will also recall the active role that Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU) has had in the high-profile disputes of the past academic year, from divestment to staff pensions to de-colonising the curriculum. The likelihood is that many of these issues will return in Michaelmas and beyond, and so it will be the role of the newly elected CUSU team to address them.

New President Evie Aspinall comes across as a fresh face, having immersed herself in CUSU for the first time only weeks before winning the election in Lent. She now faces an unenviable task – anyone studying the election figures would be forgiven for concluding that many students feel disillusioned with their Union, and Evie’s campaign sought to highlight the organisation’s lack of visibility. I began by asking what she will do to address this, now that she can no longer claim to speak as an ‘outsider’.

“There are multiple things. I’ve got a blog every week, but I’ll also be doing vlogs once we’ve sorted out the technology. Also going into colleges more; I’m hoping to go, or send one of the team, to every college every term so students have a chance to engage. More work is also being done on CUSU council.” She points out that the council – which meets fortnightly during term and which any student can attend – represents an opportunity for students to engage with their Union, but most simply do not.

This part of her vision represents variations on a theme that also appeared in the successful campaigns of her immediate predecessors. But Evie seems keen to capitalise on her credentials as a fresh presence in order to force real change. She talks proudly of the democratic review that is now being conducted into the whole CUSU process, and is also keen to address the controversy of drinking societies, which emerged immediately following the election. But one of her first actions has been to tackle the issue of inequality between colleges. “I’ve created the ‘college review’, which JCRs are filling out slowly but surely, which basically gives us a lot of information about all of the colleges, so that they can collect and compare what’s going on in other colleges. They can use it as a lobbying tool against their own colleges, if, say, they’re the ones with the highest rents.”

She admits that this requires more than just warm words. “In an ideal world, we’d be able to push the university to cut rents in all colleges, but because of the college system it doesn’t work like that. So, college inequality is a really tricky one. But one of the things I’d like to do is really support and help drive rent campaigns within colleges such as Newnham and Robinson, rather than doing it at university level.”

It seems likely that for many current students, unless they have specifically approached CUSU for help, their most direct exposure so far will have been as part of the cyclical round of protests and petitions that formed the backdrop of student life in the past year. This raises difficult questions about the mandate of the organisation, as issues such as the CUSU-endorsed staff pension strikes proved divisive. Evie predicts that the prominent debates of next year will relate to the government’s controversial Prevent strategy to tackle radicalisation, as well as the lingering struggle to decolonise the curriculum. With this in mind, I asked whether or not CUSU should be political.

“I think CUSU will inherently be political in that we are representing students’ opinions, and those opinions tend to be political. We’re fighting for certain things for students: marginalised students are having a disproportionately bad time at university, and so we have to be political in pushing an agenda to protect our students, because that’s what we’re there for. I think we will always be more political than other Unions, because we don’t have the resources other Unions have. CUSU is very underfunded, and doesn’t have a big fancy building where we can run the fun stuff that other Unions spend a lot of the time doing.” However, she admits that this makes the issue of engagement all the more important. “I do think there is a need to… broaden the appeal of CUSU, and talk to students who don’t normally get involved to see what they want as well.”

We move on to Cambridge’s academic culture, and I ask if she believes it is too challenging.

“Absolutely, without a doubt. I think mainly it’s a workload issue. I know this is something Daisy [the previous President] was going to deal with in Lent term last year but couldn’t because of the strikes, and that took up all her time. But workload in Cambridge is ridiculous… When people say that the Tompkins Table is a trivial issue, I don’t agree. If colleges are obsessed with how high their college is on the Tompkins Table they’ll start pushing their students ridiculously hard.” She thinks that part of the reason for this unhealthy culture is the type of students that Oxbridge typically attracts. “People want the academic rigour, and there will always be pressure. Even if there was less work, students would still put pressure on themselves. But I do think there is definitely a discussion to be had about workload.”

Finally, with the arrival of a new academic year, where can Freshers turn if they have a problem? “We have something called the Students’ Union Advice Service, which lots of people don’t really know about. It deals with all the issues from mental health, to academic issues, to relationships… any issue you might be having. You can just email them, there can be times where they work for months with a student on an issue. And a lot of students go there when they don’t want to go to their college… There is loads of support out there, and it’s growing all the time. It’s a really great service which is coordinated by CUSU and is in the CUSU building, by the lounge. They are trained professionals who have dealt with loads of cases before.”