CUSU squirms under continued controversy

Louise Ashwell - News Reporter 21 June 2012

Further details have emerged of the extent of frictions within Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU) as a result of recent action by its affiliates.

Resentment continues to simmer amongst CUSU members over Gerard Tully’s failure to table CUSU Council’s amendments to the NUS conference in April. The latest development has been the publication of an open letter, leaked exclusively to The Cambridge Student, on the subject of Tully’s actions by five CUSU members. These include CDE member Liam McNulty and Owen Holland, the PhD student who has been the target of a two-and-a-half year suspension from Cambridge for his part in November’s protest against a speech in Cambridge by the Higher Education minister David Willetts.

Directed personally at some of CUSU’s members, the letter takes to task fellow CUSU member Charlie Bell, CUSU’s Graduate Union Development Officer. His defence of Tully with the argument that the motions to be submitted were in any case ‘irrelevant’ is cited in the letter as emblematic of Bell’s “typically wrongheaded comments”. The letter argues that included within the motions were such important issues as hidden course costs in Further Education, an appeal to the NUS to run an effective Access campaign bringing to the fore the effects of the Higher Education White Paper, and, in a national context, appeals against the racist Home Office Prevent Strategy. Tully has come under fire after missing the deadline for submitting CUSU Council’s motions to NUS, an administrative error meaning they did not end up debated at the conference. His apology, contained within a report published on Monday was, the letter maintains, insufficient in response. Its writers go further to argue that Tully’s conduct is indicative of a ‘worrying disregard’ for the will of CUSU Council, and reflects a tendency for prioritising his own projects at the expense of other concerns. An example they point to is CUSU’s limited action in last November’s public sector strikes. The letter does not call for further action against Tully, but ends with an appeal for the protection of student union democracy.

This is not the only issue, however, for which CUSU has come under criticism this week. Documents leaked exclusively to The Cambridge Student reveal significant dispute within CUSU’s ranks regarding the recent referendum on the reform and enlargement of its Trustee Board. The disagreement is between Adam Colligan, former CUSU coordinator and honorary life member of CUSU, and the CUSU Referendum Elections Committee, with Colligan targeting CUSU for its failure to include a ‘no’ side in its publicity for the referendum. The flysheet he wrote for them detailing arguments why the current form of the board should stay the same was rejected for inclusion on its website whilst voting was taking place because the specific arguments he gave were perceived by the committee as flawed. Because no other individual provided an alternative ‘no’ flysheet, however, there was simply not one put forward.

Tully proposed the reform of the trustee board in the third CUSU council meeting of Lent term, dated 27th February. The flaws he identified in the current system were that the current constitution essentially ignored the board of trustees, and that the board itself had a bad gender balance and no “normal”, by which he meant current, students sitting on the board. The substance of Colligan’s ‘no’ flysheet was a repudiation of all these claims, but the Elections Committee ruled that his arguments could not be put forward. The justifications they gave ranged from his being misrepresentative, with Colligan arguing for more external members when the proposals for the new board already double their number, to factually incorrect. This particular claim was levelled at Colligan’s accusation that changes to the form of the board may even be illegal, pointing to the Education Act (1994) which states that “appointment to major union offices should be by election in a secret ballot in which all members are entitled to vote”. By this measure, Colligan insisted, making a Women’s Officer, who is voted into CUSU only by self-defining women, a member of the board does not reflect the decisions of the entire student body. These disputes between Colligan and the Committee are contained within a 17-page appeal he wrote to the Election Committee last week, asking them to reconsider their earlier decision on the provision of the ‘no’ argument. Their response was a formal apology to Colligan acknowledging their failure to produce an alternate ‘no’ flysheet, and insisting that it did not represent an act of partiality. The referendum has since been passed successfully.

Louise Ashwell – News Reporter