Debate over Cambridge Union membership fee reignited

Akshay Karia 30 January 2014

The life membership fee of the Cambridge Union Society has this year seen yet another sharp increase from £170 in the academic year 2012-2013 to £185, five per cent above inflation. The fresher’s discount has also fallen from £25 to £15 in two years. Many fear that the fee may reach £200, especially after 2011-2012 saw the fourth year of losses for the Union, with a £169,105 deficit.

“Over the next few years we expect the rate of the annual membership fee increase to slow dramatically”, said Oliver Jackson, Press Officer at the Union. This is in part due to its recent sponsorship deal with Deloitte: “we would not seek out sponsorship if we didn’t have to, but we find that the most important thing is for our members to know that they are getting value for money.”

Membership figures do, however, remain high. While the number of new members was recorded at 1944 in 2012-2013, that figure has risen to 2135 in 2013-2014 so far this academic year. This does remain below the high of 2264 new members in 2011-2012, when the fee was only £155. Participants in the Union’s Access Scheme, for whom the membership fee is halved, are not included in these statistics.

Michael Dunn-Goekjian, who will be President of the Union in Easter term, said that “setting the membership fee is a tricky balancing act between maintaining accessibility and raising revenue to invest in improving what we do.” Jackson said that the increased fee has facilitated a new auditorium in the library, a newly-refurbished bar and a live stream. 

The fee also goes towards Access initiatives. These include the annual schools’ debating competition, as well as funding the core ‘expensive stars’ on the Union’s termcard. Jackson said that these are “the events that members care about and it is these that most of our spending goes on.” 

One of last year’s senior members of the Union’s Standing Committee disagreed: “[U]nion prices… rise
year on year because the committee overspends… and the bar is empty every night except Thursdays… [membership
is] a waste of money.”

However, Ted Loveday, the Speakers’ Officer, defended the guest budget: “if we expected guests to meet all the costs of their own visit, we… wouldn’t secure the awesome people we do… the amazing line-up of high-profile speakers is one of the biggest reasons people join.”

The Oxford Union charges £236, or £140 under its Access Scheme. One student told The Cambridge Student she does not feel that the Union represents “value for money” for science students such as herself: “While there are a few talks I think I would attend each year, I would not be a regular…[i]t also seemed a large cost to incur in Freshers’ Week.”