The Cambridge Student can reveal that college student union presidential elections had an average turn out of 37% in the year 2013-2014. Of these, 7 out of 24 went uncontested.
This has sparked concern among students that college student unions are becoming unrepresentative and that this is indicative of a wider trend of political apathy in student politics.
Only 5 colleges had voter turnouts above 50%. Yet some colleges bucked the trend of low voter turnout, with St Catharine’s at 64%, Fitzwilliam at 59% and Trinity at 55%. However, other colleges revealed extremely low turnouts, with St John’s at only 7%, Darwin at 10%, Wolfson at 19% and Clare at 25%. Of these colleges both St John’s and Darwin ran uncontested presidential elections.
To use an example, Queens’ College has had only one candidate in their JCR presidential election for the past three years, yet 43% and 49% of voters turned out for the last two. It is the only college to have had three consecutive uncontested elections.
Adam Bateson, second year at Trinity Hall, explained to TCS his decision not to run in the Trinity Hall JCR election this year: “I decided it would be too much work.
“I think that one of the big things putting people off senior positions is that there is a huge risk of becoming overloaded, and not having enough time to stay on top of work and relax. My main fear was the lack of a safety net if things became too much.”
Amber Cowburn, a second year at Emmanuel College, is concerned that the dynamics of certain JCRs might put students off applying. Though generally very impressed with the work of her college student union, she noted that “a few students felt that the majority were going under-represented as our college council was largely one friendship group last year, and thus felt that most people felt too intimidated to apply.”
However, Ellen Judson, who has just been elected JCR President of Trinity Hall (uncontested), expressed concern that the dangers of underrepresentation go beyond the lack of candidates: “In the long term, the concern is that students will feel even less connected to a JCR Committee if its members have been elected uncontested, and the JCR cannot function as well if it doesn’t have a certain level of engagement with the student body it is meant to represent.”
She continued: “We need to keep students informed of who the JCR are… and why being on a committee is a really positive experience that complements rather than substitutes academic work.”
Flick Osborn, the President of CUSU, highlighted that “JCR presidents fulfil a vital and important role in representing and speaking out for their members at a college level and, through communication with CUSU, at a broader University level.”
Harry Peto, who was elected Clare’s JCR President with a 25% turnout, expressed concerns that students may often be “retrospectively frustrated” when JCR Presidents and the committee make certain decisions that could have been avoided, had students communicated with their representatives more. He also expressed disappointment generally with student politics in Cambridge and suggested that “apathy towards JCRs is linked to a wider lack of interest in student politics.”
Andrew Lawrence, who seconded the motion in KCSU for the ‘wages not wine’ protest held last Sunday, in connection with the wider Living Wage Campaign, expressed a similar concern about student apathy. He told TCS: “There is a frustratingly high level of apathy amongst students, even at King’s… here, the default position is cynicism and conservatism.
“The majority [of students] are only passive observers of the campaign. Sunday’s protests had a good turnout, but there were the same number of people sitting in the college bar not taking part, knowing full well that the protest was happening on their doorstep.” He warned that “too often student politics is dull and inconsequential.”
Flick Osborne has indicated that wider student engagement in politics and college issues would be a positive development: “Students are incredibly influential when they speak out and campaign on big issues, as we have recently seen with the Cambridge Living Wage Campaign. In the light of huge cuts made to Higher Education in recent months, and leading up to the 2015 General Election, it is vital that students remain engaged in political debate and continue speaking out to ensure decisions are made in students’ best interests.”
She added, “CUSU supports and references both JCRs and MCRs in explaining such engagement and would love to see more students running.”