Not a “kneejerk reaction”: Call for CUSU referendum passes

Ashley Chhibber 24 April 2014

Students are to be consulted on widereaching changes to the structure of the Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU), after college representatives voted last night to hold a referendum on constitutional reform.

Flick Osborn, current president of CUSU, told The Cambridge Student ahead of the vote: “There are lots of mixed opinions on CUSU and it’s clear that a change is needed to continue to reach out and adapt to students’ experiences.”

The motion, proposed by the current Sabbatical Officers, was passed by 26 votes to 3, with two voters abstaining, at an Extraordinary Meeting of CUSU Council. Yet the vote followed an hour of intense debate, during which the legitimacy of any referendum was itself called into question.

The referendum, which will be put to students next week and requires that 10% of the student population vote in favour if it is to pass, deals with a variety of constitutional changes. 

Most noticeably, it proposes replacing the role of CUSU Coordinator with a Campaign and Societies Officer, as part of a movement to introduce wider support for societies from CUSU.

No candidates stood for the position in the recent CUSU elections which was, according to a report of the Elections Committee which was released at last night’s meeting, because “the role is dated”.

Flick Osborn denied that the removal of the role of Coordinator was “a kneejerk reaction to a bad election”, saying instead: “It has been on the horizon for some time.”

Other proposals included in the referendum will aim to reduce some of the bureaucracy “that currently prevents CUSU Council from changing CUSU should it wish to”, and to increase accountability and transparency in terms of both finances and the trustees. 

Flick Osborn spoke first in favour of the motion. She said that Sabbatical Officers “should be student-facing”, and after explaining the benefits for students, noted the three reasons why the changes are necessary for CUSU itself: “Relevance, 
openness, progressiveness.”

“This is us saying we want to be progressive, we want to move forwards, we want to change,” she added.

However, Flick’s predecessor in the presidential role, Ros Old, argued against the motion. She pointed out that it was in fact the role of the Council, rather than of the Sabbatical Officers, to call a referendum, and complained about the lack of the seven day minimum period between a vote in favour of referendum and the referendum itself. The referendum will be held from Monday 28 April.

Robert Cashman, current President of St John’s College JCR, also spoke against the motion. “What confuses me about this is that I don’t really see who’s winning,” he said, going on to add: “I’m all for a reshuffling … but I think it has to be a much 
longer process.”

In response to these accusations that students would not be given enough formal notice before the referendum, Flick conceded: “Five days is not seven days. We know that.”

She went on to say that the Sabbatical Officers were acting “in the spirit of the constitution” in order to leave time for elections before students are hit by their exams. 

The current CUSU Coordinator, Dom Weldon, spoke in favour of holding a referendum to abolish his role. He described the way in which CUSU has changed over the period he has spent as Coordinator (nearly two years): “CUSU is becoming a lot bigger, a lot bolder, a lot more resilient and a lot more professional … This role doesn’t make sense any more in the context of what CUSU is.”

Following the passing of the motion, Flick Osborn, Jia Hui Lee and Dom Weldon all requested to be excused from their positions on the Extraordinary Elections Committee, due to a potential conflict of interest. Sam Ruiz, Ivan Tchernev, Davina Moss and Priscilla Mensah (the latter two in absentia) stood to fill the four roles on the committee in their stead.

Jia Hui, who will be heading the ‘No’ campaign, told TCS: “These changes respond to feedback we’ve received from students … The entire CUSU sabbatical team thinks that a referendum is the best way students can decide if these changes are necessary.”

Speaking to TCS after the meeting, Dom Weldon said: “In the future, decisions about the students’ union’s resources can be taken by student representatives, supported by professionals, and overseen by our Board of Trustees, as is best practice at other students’ unions.

“I’m absolutely delighted that CUSU Council has voted in favour of holding a referendum on these proposals, and I strongly urge all students who want to see CUSU continue to improve and represent them to vote yes in the referendum next week."