Spoiling the Ballot – Online Update 1

Click here for the previous update 5 March 2011

Spoiling the Ballot has attracted quite a lot of flack this week. One current sabbatical officer described me as a “horrid little gobshite,” and Student Support candidate Faye Rolfe did not seem too impressed by our suggestion the games on her website might be more entertaining if they included a Cambridge version of Grand Theft Auto. “I’m afraid my skills lie in student welfare and not computer programming,” she wrote on her blog.

However, the fiercest criticism came from Taz Rasul, running for Access Officer on a slate with Heidi Aho, whose names sounds like a yodel. Rasul dismissed my last column as “Brooker Jnr journalism,” on Facebook, whatever that is, and added that ignoring her varied and manifold ideas on Access was “a shit thing to do.” So now I’ve decided to pay attention.

Let’s have a look at some of those ideas in more detail. In her manifesto, Rasul writes that she has “run a free service called TazHelp for three years, which has helped three hundred state school students find out about and apply for University.”

That sounds commendable. So what exactly is TazHelp? Well, the website purports to offer “tips on your personal statement.” As an example of a model personal statement, Rasul puts up the one she used when applying to Cambridge. She also runs a service critiquing the statements of others, and helping to improve them. As an example, Rasul puts up a statement she ‘helped’ with. First of all, she helpfully comments “this is a good personal statement,” and adds helpful annotations, like “negativitiy! You’re drawing your attention to your ‘failures’.” Rasul’s last bit of help, in emphatic capitals, is “YOU NEED A STRONG CLOSING.”

This might all seem pretty innocuous, but it is a Very Bad Thing. As The Cambridge Student reported last week, UCAS identified 30,000 cases of personal statement plagiarism last year. Who knows how many applicants have copied bits of Rasul’s verbatim?

TazHelp also feels uncomfortably similar to websites like Oxbridge Personal Statements, application tailoring services which fleeces hundreds of pounds from hopefuls for advice of minimal use.

CUSU does not like these websites. In fact, it dislikes them so much it has policy on them. A motion passed at CUSU Council last year notes the number of “organisations charging prospective applicants for advice, help with their application and interview.” It goes on to state they “perpetuate negative stereotypes about the admissions process” and “undermine the work of individual access teams across the University.” The University’s Admissions Office also takes a pretty dim view.

TazHelp hurts Access rather than furthering it. Rasul perpetuates the myth that Access Officers are supposed to dispel: that Cambridge is only looking for a certain type of person, and that a personal statement that is genuinely ‘personal’ is simply not good enough.

Rasul’s running mate Heidi Aho is no better. In a blog post on her website, Aho waxes lyrical about “a mounted poster of two African dancers” in the waiting room of the University Counselling Service. “I couldn’t help but romanticise about the symbolism of it all – an aesthetic plea to hold on to the beauty and possibility of life and keep going,” she bleats. “But really for most people who had sat in the same red seat the dancing people posed a stark contrast to an inner landscape stripped bare by anxiety, stress, depression.”

This is probably the most condescending treatment of people with mental health issues I have ever read. “An inner landscape stripped bare”? Wow.

In other news, Rowan Thomas has dropped out of the race for Coordinator for personal reasons. That leaves Charlotte Lawes, who is after increased funding from the University, and Harriet Flower, who wants to take over the University Centre as a CUSU venue. As I pointed out in yesterday’s column, neither candidate has yet come up with a convincing way of making more money for CUSU. Whether Lawes and Flower will think more carefully about funding streams in tomorrow’s debate has yet to be seen.

James Burton

Views & Comments expressed are the opinions of individuals and not necessarily the opinions of Cambridge University Students’ Union or The Cambridge Student Newspaper. Any views of potential candidates expressed in this column are not necessarily the views they would hold if elected. In all cases, elected candidates would respect due process in the totality of their interactions with staff.

Spoiling the ballot will now be running regularly online for the remainder of the election:

Click here for the next update

Click here for the previous update