Students’ Unions, not student censorship

27 February 2010

It had not been my intention until very recently to write this article – newspapers are understandably unwilling to give candidates space to writes articles during election week. But an issue of principle has arisen that necessitated exposure in the press.

On Wednesday, two days after I started campaigning for election to CUSU, the decision was taken to censor my arguments by substantially redacting the official version of my manifesto.

You may be expecting that the cause of such a dramatic event was that I expressed bigoted or hateful views. . (Although of course one of last year’s presidential candidates, Li Guolong, received no official reprimand despite repeatedly advocating that homosexuals be given ‘help’ to stop being gay.)

But no, my apparent transgression was far more severe: I dared to question the wisdom that CUSU should spend almost£40,000 every year on a Union Development Manager (UDM).

With CUSU facing an imminent budget crisis of£80,000 per year as the Careers Handbook contract comes to an end, I have suggested abolishing the UDM position. I was aware that talking about staffing was understandably a regulated process, and so I took pains to stick by the Staff-Student guidelines that had been drafted by the UDM himself.

I was thus both surprised and angered when the CUSU Coordinator, on the advice of both the UDM and the NUS, informed me that she was imposing censorship and that I could potentially be disqualified by the Elections Committee (EC) if I continued to raise the issue.

A further attempt at censorship was made when CUSU initially tried to block the publication of this article. Fortunately, they were unsuccessful.

Unions used to be run by students and for students. This principle was innately valuable and I believe that it still represents the best way forward. Across the country, student control has continually been reduced to the point that Union sabbs are little more than figureheads; the real control is held by managers and other staff.

The most alarming example is the NUS, where most policy is now written by Union staff. CUSU has seen a growth in staff numbers in recent years, but only last year was a general manager employed for the first time.

At the time, the decision to hire did not seem nearly as bad as it does now. It seemed that CUSU was about to be transformed by vastly increased University funding. This turned out not to be the case, and when the first post-holder resigned last summer, the entire venture should legitimately have been written off as a well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful endeavour.

Instead, the new CUSU sabbatical team, on literally their first unsupervised day on the job, rushed headlong into recruiting a replacement, ignoring the fact that CUSU no longer needed the position and would soon be unable to afford it anyway.

What occurred then, and what occurred on Wednesday, are both symptomatic of a shift towards a management-led model that both undermines Unions’ purposes and forgets their true nature.

Unions should be representative institutions for their members; those who run the Union should be elected from amongst the student body. Increasingly, a huge division is being forced between students and their Unions by replacing these elected representatives with staff who do not have the same democratic connection to their members.

As the events of Wednesday have evidenced, even the democratic process itself can be curtailed in order to prevent a resurgence of the students-for-students ideal.

In other Students’ Unions, which run shops and nightclubs and necessarily employ large numbers of staff, some professional management is probably a good idea. But this practice of hiring through necessity has been replaced by a culture in which it is dogmatically thought that more staff – and more non-student management – must be a good thing.

CUSU is a small Union organisation. It does not run a shop, bar or nightclub. Employing a general manager figure is a grievous waste of what little money CUSU has.

Not everyone will agree with my views about the UDM, but it is vital for CUSU, especially during elections, that views can be heard and debates can be had. Censorship, much like management-control, will only weaken our Unions.

This is a comment article: it does not represent the views of TCS or CUSU. If elected to CUSU office, I would respect due process in the totality of my interactions with staff.

Chris Lilycrop