Scathing attack launched by international newspaper over conduct of Cambridge student unions

Exclusive: Cambridge University Graduate Union president accuses fellow students of racism.

An article published in Pakistan's largest English language newspaper this weekend has accused unnamed Cambridge students of mounting a racially motivated campaign against incumbent Graduate Union president Arsalan Ghani (pictured above).

In largely unsubstantiated allegations, Fridays' edition of Pakistan's The News International newspaper (not to be confused with the Murdoch owned publishing group of the same name) derided Cambridge students for rendering Ghani's authority "toothless" and preventing him from implementing much of his manifesto. It goes on launch a personal attack on the conduct of the former GU president, Liv Watson and, in a bizarre turn, extends its accusations of racism to unrelated CUSU presidential elections.

Cambridge's Graduate Union (GU) represents graduate students who are studying for a Masters, PHD or similar. It conducts its own elections and has its own constitution. It is separate to The Cambridge University Students' Union (CUSU) which represents undergraduate and post-graduate students. Although elections for the president of both student groups take place at the same time and share a common electronic voting platform, they remain entirely separate in their operation.

Regardless of cultural differences in journalistic best practice, the article (by journalist Murtaza Ali Shah) shows a clear editorial bias in support of current GU president Ghani. There are no direct quotations from either Ghani or his supporters in support of the allegations. It also fails to mention whether Liv Watson, the former president of the GU, was contacted for comment on the issue. Save for a request for comment by the newspaper by the University press office (named as "a university spokesperson at the External Affairs and Communications department") there seems to be little attempt by Shah to provide any evidence or quotations to back up the allegations.

The article is reproduced here in full:

A Pakistani student who made history after being elected as president of the prestigious Cambridge University Graduate Union has been a victim of racial discrimination after a campaign was orchestrated to marginalise him in the union.

In over 800 years of the university's history, a Pakistani, Arsalan Ghani, from

Faisalabad, was elected in March this year to head the student union till July next year representing 12,000 MA, MPhil and PhD students studying at the Cambridge University, most of them international students.

This was a historic achievement and had similarity to what Benazir Bhutto had achieved as leader of the Oxford union but ‘The News' has learnt of the systematic discrimination against Arsalan Ghani. This position requires Arsalan to suspend his studies and take a full time role as president and head the union offices. He was deprived of his authorities and role in the union, according to his complaint.

Information reveal the student leader faced multiple discriminations from his colleagues, mostly the former board members in the first month of joining his duty in the union.

There are reports that he was marginalised, abused, threatened and discriminated in the union to the extent that he was forced to launch a formal complaint to the university in this regard.

A popular figure amongst the local and international students, a fact demonstrated by his sweeping victory, Arsalan promised in his election manifesto to organise events for diverse communities, develop interfaith unity and to initiate a UK wide and global campaign against fee and cuts in education sector. It was through Arsalan's initiatives that for the first time ever Kosher, Halal and vegetarian sections were introduced in the union's cafe.

But Arsalan Ghani's activism and ambitions to promote student welfare has faced opposition. In a sheer discriminatory move, his powers as a president were cut down immediately after the election results were announced. This is done by making changes to the union constitution overnight by the previous president and board members.

The outgoing president of the union, in a brazen attempt to stay on to power, crafted a new position through the constitutional changes, allowing herself to remain in the union's trustee board for the next four years to eight years, undermining the rights of democratically elected presidents and attempting to make them dysfunctional.

Previous board members who are still holding office refused to cooperate with the newly elected president and held meetings and took key decisions excluding the president. Not only this, the union staff also refused to get approvals in administrative and financial matters from the president undermining his authority given to him.

Such efforts to marginalise the president have effectively rendered Arsalan Ghani, supposed to be the head of the union, toothless and unable to implement his election manifesto for the student community."

The university's student elections held in March 2012 were also marred with controversy when the undergraduate candidate of African-Caribbean origin was discriminated and purposely disqualified on the pretence of irregularities during her election campaign.

After initially hesitating to listening to Ghani's complaints, the university has now accepted his complaint. When approached, a university spokesperson at the External Affairs and Communications department refused to offer comments on the issue.

The article quoted above is in the public domain. The purpose of our report here is to highlight our belief that there is a prevailing public interest in the manner that a reputable major overseas newspaper could publish unsubstantiated and unsupported allegations regarding the conduct of the students of the University of Cambridge and their student representative bodies. Regardless, The Cambridge Student has begun a process of investigating the accusations detailed below. To date, we have not been able to find any evidence of racist behaviour.

Speaking exclusively to the The Cambridge Student, GU President Ghani said: "I cannot comment on the published news and their style of reporting. I believe that I am discriminated on racial grounds in the Graduate Union. I have launched a complaint to the university authorities in this matter who are investigating. I have all the necessary evidences. Further information, I can only provide after consultation with my lawyers."

Former GU President Liv Watson reacted: "The allegations made in this article are utterly baffling. Changes to the Constitution to allow the GU to become a charity - and thus to have a Trustee Board - were started long before Arsalan voiced his intentions to run for President. The suggestion that I manipulated the Constitution to gain a place on the Trustee Board is particularly bizarre, since I left before the new Constitution came into effect and am not a Trustee. As for the unfounded charges of racism; if I didn't have a hefty student loan to pay off I'd be suing this so-called journalist for libel."

TCS has contacted or attempted to contact Cambridge University Students' Union, former CUSU Presidential Candidate Akilah Jeffers and the editor of The News International for comment but we are yet to receive any replies. The article will be updated as soon as any comments are received.

Following a second article published by The News International newspaper, the editors of The Cambridge student have published an editorial here.

The second News International Article is reproduced here in full:

Cambridge student leader lives in fear after complaint

LONDON: A Pakistani student leader at the Cambridge University has openly accused the university's certain board members and staff in the Graduate Union for discriminating against him "on racial grounds" but the student leader faces hostility for going public about his concerns.

After this newspaper highlighted the difficulties of Arsalan Ghani – student from Faisalabad who was elected in March this year to head the union on full time basis – local media in Cambridge picked up the issue and called these allegations as "scathing attack" on the Cambridge student bodies.

Speaking to The Cambridge Student TCS newspaper, GU President Ghani said: "I have launched a complaint to the university authorities in this matter who are investigating. I have all the necessary evidences. Further information, I can only provide after consultation with my lawyers."

But the same news report totally ignored the above statement and concluded "to date, we have not been able to find any evidence of racist behavior". The report in effect attempted to deny natural justice to a person who claims that he has been a victim of racial discrimination. The same newspaper played vital role in the campaign against African-Caribbean candidate during CUSU elections and slandered her as "hilariously incompetent".

The former GU President Olivia Watson who has been accused of orchestrating campaign against Arsalan, hit back saying that "changes to the constitution to allow the GU to become a charity - and thus to have a Trustee Board - were started long before Arsalan voiced his intentions to run for President. The suggestion that I manipulated the Constitution to gain a place on the Trustee Board is particularly bizarre, since I left before the new Constitution came into effect and am not a Trustee".

CUSU LGBT chair Charlie Bell said that it was "totally unfair" to "attack Cambridge students as somehow being against minority groups".

Varsity, the independent Cambridge student newspaper published since 1947, said it had received reports that Ghani had "systematic campaign - at times underhand" against him. The paper speculated that the antagonism towards Ghani may have stemmed at least in part from his political views because he is a "well-known left-wing campaigner" as he is actively involved with the Cambridge Marxist Society. The source to Varsity quoted: "Covert racism definitely exists in Cambridge student society. Had the president been white, I don't believe he would have received the same level of antagonism and abuse."

One of the local publications went on to criticise the publishing of the original exclusive report of discrimination allegation but a source at the University's administration told this correspondent that the prestigious university's senior figures were highly concerned that a relatively internal matter had gone global and carried serious implications to the reputation of the university which heavily depends on sizeable international students.

According to reports received by this correspondent, Ghani has been deprived of his authorities and role in the union as a President and encountered lot of problems from a certain group of board members.

His responsibilities as a president were cut down by making changes to the union constitution overnight by the previous president and those board members leaving behind serious flaws in the constitution. According to internal Cambridge sources, the group opposed to ethnic minorities, has established strong network in the Cambridge University. The far-right English Defense League (EDL) and racist British National Party (BNP) has a lot of support base in Cambridge.

Racism in Cambridge University is not new. Sources close to Arsalan stated that he is facing serious threats and victimization after launching complaint to the University and highlighting the issue.

Ben Richardson – News Editor

Related Stories:

Editorial -18th September 2012

Graduate students apathetic in GU referendum

CUSU Election Results 2012: In with the Old!

Election Latest: Former CUSU Sabbatical officer slams Presidential Candidate's record

Student democracy: how much should we care about voting?

CUSU squirms under continued controversy

blog comments powered by Disqus

Related Stories

In this section

Across the site

Best of the Rest