Students in Cambridge desperately need better representation

Jack May 12 November 2015

The National Student Survey, taken by finalists across the country every year, and released to the delight of student journalists and various bureaucratic committees, is always a difficult beast.

There are lots of ways in which universities, and in particular Cambridge, are not always directly comparable. Not all universities offer the same subjects, and only very few universities in the country run on the collegiate system that we experience here at Cambridge.

It is therefore with a pinch of salt that we report the findings of 2015’s National Student Survey.

On the one hand, there is some good news. Cambridge students are, generally, satisfied.

However, lots can slip under the radar. Last year, we reported that only 38% of students did not think that their course applies “unnecessary pressure”. This was, at the time, the starting gun for a new campaign to #endweek5blues and institute a reading week at the University.

Unfortunately, almost nothing has been heard of the campaign this academic year – it has been consigned to the pile of ideas that couldn’t survive the Cambridge timewarp.

This year, what seems most surprising is the figures that have come to light with Cambridge students’ levels of satisfaction with their Student Unions.

It is important here to tread very carefully indeed.

The survey does not specifically mention Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU), or indeed mention by name any specific union. Here, the uniquenesses of the Cambridge system comes into play.

In Cambridge there are over 60 students’ unions. There are 31 colleges, each of which has at least one union of the student body (most often one for the undergraduate students – a JCR – and one for the graduates – a MCR). Furthermore, there is both the Graduate Union and the CUSU that many of us are familiar with.

Whilst most can be discounted, as only undergraduate finalists take the survey, it is important to bear in mind that ambiguities still exist.

We have to think whether the average student filling in the survey will think this question refers to their college union, or to CUSU.

It seems most likely that the average Cambridge student – with what can be assumed to be an above-average level of intelligence and common sense – would think through the survey, think through the specificities of the Cambridge system, and come to the conclusion that this probably is in reference to CUSU.

Were that assumption to be made, these figures would be truly concerning. CUSU’s satisfaction level would have fallen consistently ever since the student union question was introduced in 2012, from 46% to this year’s record low of 32%.

While the sabbatical term of one year can seem very short in the greater scheme of things, in Cambridge terms it is an aeon. It is a whole generation’s worth of change, reform, and – most crucially – perception. Within a year is contained the chance to completely alter the perception students have of CUSU.

However, it may be the case that such an assumption cannot be made – it may be that common sense is the one form of intelligence we can’t expect Cambridge students to harbour. If that is the case, then 32% is a conglomerate average of satisfaction with all the numerous student unions across Cambridge, meaning that we have an enormous problem to tackle.

JCRs can vary hugely – there are some that are active, campaigning, and led by impassioned students with a drive to work with, through, and (where needed) in spite of the college to get a better deal for their students. There are also some run in a lacklustre fashion by officers with all the drive of a mildly aroused sloth.

Student representation across Cambridge is in a state of poor health. It is time for this survey to kickstart a new campaign more vigorous than the last. We must all do our bit to revive student representation, whether that be in making sure that positions, at college or university level, are contested, taking part in college-focussed direct action, or simply checking up on what our unions are doing in our name.

It is vital that student representation isn’t left to the radical few to whither and die. We must all take part, and ensure that our voices are heard, in college and across Cambridge.