We must keep careful track of our students' unions in the long-term

Image credit: Andrew Moss

Our investigation spread this week (‘Apathy, anger, and division: The student union problem’, p.4–5) is an in-depth analysis at student unions, both in Cambridge and further afield – with a look both at CUSU and at the National Union of Students.

With the long-term memory of the student body often not stretching beyond a year or two (at best, three), it can be hard to take a zoomed-out view of these large-scale organisations, and consider their real impact.

In CUSU’s case, the verdict can be hard to return. With sabbatical officers changing year on year, it often feels as though it is impossible to judge the success of the union, as its officers change just as they are starting to enact change.

This year, for example, has seen record lows in student satisfaction in Cambridge with their student union, and yet these figures only truly reflect on last year’s officers. As President Priscilla Mensah said at the time, the sabbatical officers must be judged on their record come June 2016.

That being said, we must look beyond the one-year cycle, and ask why CUSU has consistently, repeatedly, and impressively failed to excite the student body to any significant and wide-ranging extent.

The case of the NUS is slightly more complex. To many students it is known only as a provider in discounts in such high-street stores as Topshop.

However, it is in reality a ferocious and deeply committed campaigning organisation, and while this fervour should be commended, the question must be asked as to how democratic an organisation it is.

With most of its campaigning decided via motions at its conferences, delegates for which are chosen on a campus-by-campus basis, we must look at who attends these conferences. In recent years, Cambridge’s delegates have been student union insiders, elected on microscopic turnouts.

While this does not invalidate the commitment they show, nor the work they do, it does mean that the levels of democracy present in the institution may not be as high as they could otherwise be.

Until the NUS can show that it has what can be considered genuine democratic structures, that actually reach out to all students, and not merely to activist insiders, it cannot realistically claim to have the credibility to launch such radical and politically charged campaigns.

Strong union representation is vital for students – both locally and nationally. Thus far this year, CUSU and its officers have shown that they intend to put their historic mandate at last year’s elections to good use, and this newspaper will hold a critical eye to the union come the end of the year. As for the NUS, it may still have a long way to go. 

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