A Students' Union that works for you?

As new sabbatical officers step up to take their places, James Burton reviews how successful Cambridge University Student's Union (CUSU) has been over the past year, finding some definite achievements but also some serious concerns

In a piece this paper published in May Week last year, current CUSU President Tom Chigbo wrote: "CUSU is essential, providing us with formal representation, a strong campaigning voice as well as important student services and welfare support."

Rahul Mansigani, the incoming President, was unsurprisingly quick to claim Chigbo and his team of Sabbatical Officers (Sabbs) had fulfilled this role. "I think I speak on behalf of all the Sabbs-Elect when I say that we think the current sabbatical team have done an amazing job," he said.

Fine words. But how successful have this year's Sabbs really been in delivering the formal representation and services they promised?

Chigbo's comment piece outlined a number of areas he wanted to focus on during his year in office: discrepancies in supervision quality, library services, and marking guidelines between Colleges and departments, and students' right to see marked exam scripts.

There has been little obvious movement on the academic issues outlined above, but Chigbo told The Cambridge Student (TCS) that "CUSU has secured a number of important changes this year." He pointed to the fact exam results are being released online via Camsis before they go up at Senate House for the first time this year and further, "from next year, the vast majority of students will be free of Saturday exams." He also added that CUSU is working "to make even more improvements students' educational experience and smooth out discrepancies between subjects and departments where they are harmful," and "will be in the strongest possible position" to continue with this next year. Many may not notice, but as a journalist it is regularly hammered home to you by students and academics alike that our university remains a place where change takes years to come, if it comes at all.

There have undoubtedly been a number of tangible results delivered by the organisation this year. What the Sabbs are perhaps most proud of is the securing of a Student Support Adviser, paid for by funding from the university. This is a job aimed at freeing up the incoming Welfare Officer's time by providing a permanent caseworker to offer support and guidance to students who have serious welfare problems. Given that this is the first time funding has ever been given, it is perhaps to be celebrated for setting a useful precedent, although it may be that university management chooses to continue tying in any future funding to specific projects rather than freeing up money for use wherever CUSU wants to put it.

The University is soon to adopt a program called Dignity@Study, which is essentially a plan aimed at providing support and guidance for students who experience inappropriate behaviour at the hands of university staff or other students. Based on information I have been given by multiple sources time and again, bullying and harassment by supervisors is an infinitely greater problem than university authorities are willing to admit, and anything that combats this is to be welcomed.

One perennial problem with CUSU is that it is far more effective at bringing about change through quiet meetings between Sabbs and university management than it is at organising events that engage with and directly involve students. The organisation tends to adopt a softly, softly approach, meaning that most students often don't find out about its successes. This kid gloves attitude is undoubtedly a more effective way of engaging with the university than endless protests and outright hostility would be, but it's impossible to deny that it often alienates students and means that CUSU struggles when it comes to encouraging wider participation.

The Town Takeover, a joint town and gown protest against tuition fees touted by the Sabbs as a major event, attracted over 200 students, but ethical and environmental protests in Green Week delivered a dismally low turnout, with barely anyone turning up to either the talks that had been organised, or to a ditch clearing event beside Jesus Green.

Attempts by CUSU to help get talks between the Israel and Palestine societies back on track and ensure Israel-Palestine awareness week went ahead were a well documented failure. Although this is perhaps unsurprising given the sensitivity of the issues surrounding the event, it provides further evidence of CUSU's tendency to be much better at engaging with the university on behalf of students than at engaging with students themselves.

Perhaps more worryingly, there seems to have been a clear decline in CUSU staff morale over the last few months. CUSU employs seven non-student staff – a Finance Officer, Business Manager, Ents Manager, Union Development Manager  and two receptionists – and in an anonymous survey completed for TCS, many voiced serious concerns. Four respondents rated current staff morale as either ‘poor' or ‘very poor', with two also stating they were ‘very unsatisfied' with CUSU's management structure. One reply clearly tied this dissatisfaction in with budgetary concerns, claiming in the comments section that, although "in recent years Sabbs have worked longer hours than in the past… areas where income has been declining have not been arrested, chiefly ents. Poor decisions on staff appointment in this area have caused successive Sabbs a serious problem.

"Large increases in overheads e.g. the General Manager/Union Development Manager have not stemmed the decline but exacerbated the situation and have acted as a drain on limited resources. The effect of this has been masked to some extent by windfall incomes from the Year 800 and Education publications. These are one-offs and action to reduce overheads and reverse the ents decline is urgently required."

There do appear to be real issues surrounding the budget, not least an apparent £19,000 deficit that has forced CUSU to dip into its reserves. CUSU Coordinator Clare Tyson's explanation for this is that CUSU is "resetting" its accounting practice for income from the Oxford and Cambridge Careers Handbook (OCCH), and the deficit is an accounting one, rather than a real one – in other words, whereas in previous years the OCCH was included in the budget before it was published, in future it will be accounted for in the budget the year after it has been produced. This means in practice that an extra revenue stream will be produced during this financial year that has not been included in the budget but will, apparently cover the apparent deficit.

However, no new deal has yet been secured for the OCCH in the coming year. Furthermore, Excellence in Education, a one-off publication that will not be reproduced this year, brought £35,000 into this year's CUSU pot. In effect, this means the OCCH will have to be able to generate not just £19,000 in revenue in future years, but £54,000, a far bigger ask. With this in mind, incoming CUSU Coordinator Chris Lillycrop believes that more must be done to ensure the organisation remains revenue positive. "We do not currently have a new deal in place for the OCCH, so we are in real terms £19,000 short. In the light of this, securing CUSU's future will be one of my biggest challenges this year," he said.

One possible area in which savings could be made – as perhaps suggested by the comment in the questionnaire above – is to reduce CUSU's overheads by making redundancies where staff are not bringing money in. Such a move might well be unpopular with the College Council, but the removal of a salary from CUSU's outgoings would doubtless save money. Tyson, however, made it clear that "each and every Sabbatical Officer's and Staff member's role exists to enable CUSU to fulfil its activities." However, it cannot be denied that were one less salary being paid, even if the OCCH deal falls through, CUSU would be in the green this year.

So, has it been a good year for CUSU? I remain less than 100 per cent convinced. Certainly there have been successes, although it is sometimes unpopular for a paper to admit so, but mistakes have also been made, and the budget continues to be more worrying than Tyson wishes to make out. The incoming Sabbs will have to urgently address the decline in staff morale, and to work harder on student engagement if CUSU is to ensure its members pay it serious attention.

James Burton

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