CUSU rocked by call for Council

James Burton & Jess Touschek 5 November 2009

CUSU Extraordinary Council has been called for this evening concerning a potential overhaul of the structural links between Cambridge University Student’s Union (CUSU) and the Graduate Union (GU).

The manner in which the motion was brought to Council, and its far-reaching implications, have contributed to the resignation of CUSU Council Chairman, Chris Lillycrop.

The motion, proposed by all six CUSU sabbatical officers, asks for a mandate to discuss the possibility of restructuring the sabbatical team, an action that would require ratification by special referendum. The Cambridge Student (TCS) understands, however, that discussions between CUSU and the GU have already progressed beyond the official remit of the parties involved.

Although the motion states that “CUSU sabbatical officers necessarily play a key role in discussions surrounding the Union’s long-term future,” CUSU Standing Orders rule that it is the Democracy and Development team that is responsible for the Union’s continued development and constitutional structure.

The Democracy and Development team is one of five groups that make up the 34-strong Executive Committee, led by CUSU President Tom Chigbo and consisting of the Council Chair and Council Secretary, along with one graduate and one undergraduate officer. Prior to the announcement of the Extraordinary Council, the positions of Council Secretary and Graduate Democracy and Development Officer were vacant.

Asked specifically whether he had previously discussed the contents of the motion with the rest of the Democracy and Development team, Chigbo replied: “No.” It is understood that this lack of consultation, undermining as it does the rules set out in the Standing Orders, led to the resignation of Lillycrop, although Chigbo did state that “Democracy and Development are not responsible for the motions that are submitted to Council. What we are looking for here is to get a mandate to work with the D and D team.”

While noting the benefits of stronger links with the GU, including a more effective “sharing of resources,” and emphasising his “support and appreciation for the important work of the CUSU Executive,” President of Robinson College Students’ Association (RCSA), Rahul Mansigani, told TCS that it is “essential that the CUSU Executive keep Council, to whom they are responsible, updated regarding their plans, especially ones regarding issues of such significance as the nature of the relationship between the Graduate Union and CUSU, and I take seriously any suggestion that they have not done so.”

Options that would be on the table if today’s motion is passed include the appointment of a full-time, non-elected caseworker to act as a liaison between the two unions or, if funding is not forthcoming, to transform one of the existing sabbatical positions into one “accountable to graduate students through both CUSU and GU structures.”

This suggests that, were such a change to be ratified, those eligible to vote for the sabbatical post might be restricted to the graduate student body. If this were the case it would be the second position, after CUSU Women’s Officer, for which the full undergraduate electorate is ineligible to vote. This accounts for nearly a third of the sabbatical team, funded in part by JCR contributions.

Grayden Webb, President of Churchill JCR, attended an emergency meeting of the CUSU Democracy and Development team yesterday, and told TCS that one option on the table for funding the new position was an application for “a block grant from the University”. If this was adopted, it would be the first time the university had directly funded CUSU, which currently draws its revenue from advertising and JCR Affiliation fees. Chigbo acknowledged this was a possibility, and said that “we are aiming to get resources and funding from the university for a caseworker”.

According to several sources, including Andrea Walko, last year’s Welfare Officer, discussions between last year’s CUSU sabbatical team and the Graduate Union had come close to an agreement on a potential merger of the two bodies. Several JCRs were consulted, and although no official mandate was requested at Council, the GU expressed initial support for the idea. The move fell through, however, after a reversal by the GU over the course of the Easter holidays.

Walko suggested that one possible reason for the CUSU execs decision to move quickly is that “knowing the pressure of the time scale and the unreliability of the GU, my initial instinct is that the GU suddenly said they were up for it and the sabbs are moving fast.”

Jenny Harcourt, GU President, declined to comment on specifics, but said in an email sent to TCS that “we welcome the fact that gradate representation is being discussed. The Graduate Union takes student support seriously and we look forward to discussing ways to work with CUSU in the future.”

Amiya Bhatia, CUSU Welfare Officer, said that “the agenda proposals are about addressing graduate welfare concerns in a meaningful and positive way.

“This gives us an opportunity to increase our provision of welfare and to explore how to increase welfare in the future.”

She added that JCRs had a long-standing interest in the creation of a fulltime caseworker position and that if the motion was passed, CUSU would be one step closer to achieving this.

In an email seen by TCS, Lillycrop informed Council members that: “As a result of the unusual activities of the past few days, which resulted in last night’s calling of an Extraordinary Council, it has become clear to me that I am no longer able to carry out the role of CUSU Chair with the degree of conviction and honesty that it demands.”

A CUSU statement has attributed Lillycrop’s resignation to “his close relationships with other members of the executive and other positions of responsibility.”

There have been suggestions from several parties that his decision was based on extenuating factors other than the Extraordinary Council meeting.

Lillycrop, who is also Associate Editor of TCS, was moved to clarify that “a close personal relationship with one of the sabbs,” only became problematic “when I was compelled to strongly advise the sabbatical officers at a time of heightened stress about the nature of their relationship with Council.

I was disappointed to find out that Tom Chigbo had been telling JCR Presidents that my resignation was unconnected to the Extraordinary Council, although I trust Tom that this was not a deliberate implication on his part.

“Out of a desire to protect CUSU’s reputation, it had been my intention to refrain from giving comment to the press on my resignation.

 “But I was forced to abandon this position by the unfortunate fact that several JCR Presidents had an incorrect impression as to my reasons for resigning.”

Chigbo told TCS in an email that “I have received no additional information from Chris about his resignation beyond his statement to Council, and am unable to represent his views or intentions beyond what he has said himself.”

Several JCR Presidents registered their regret at Lillycrop’s departure. David Lowry said: “He was an excellent Chair who combined a great understanding of CUSU’s regulations and procedures with a sense of fun which made Council more accessible.”

James Burton & Jess Touschek