Arsalan Ghani speaks exclusively to Varsity in a letter to the Editor
President of the Graduate Union, Arsalan Ghani, addresses the recent controversies within the GU, as a motion of censure is brought against him.
by Arsalan Ghani
Thursday 27th September 2012, 18:37 BST
This letter was sent to the editor on Thursday, and is the full version of the extract featured in this week's paper. The views expressed are the author's and do not represent those of Varsity.
Recent articles in the Cambridge student press and international media have reported accusations of racism within the Graduate Union (GU). It is true that I did submit a complaint to the University regarding racial discrimination. I did so as a result of marginalisation and harassment that I had received from other GU board members since taking up my position as President. However, recent events lead me to believe that the main reasons behind this harassment are politically motivated, as has been suggested in previous Varsity reports, due to my background as a socialist and an active political and student rights campaigner. Moreover, I believe that this is part of a wider campaign to marginalise me within the GU and to restrict the democracy of the GU.
I was elected as President of the GU in March 2012 on a manifesto to campaign to struggle against fees and education cuts, as part of an international student movement. From the very start of my involvement in GU politics I was the victim of vicious attacks, with other students ripping up my campaign posters from the walls and submitting baseless complaints in an attempt to stop me winning the election.
Within weeks of my election victory, a new GU constitution was passed that stripped down the powers and responsibilities of the democratically elected GU President, placing them in the hands of a Board of Trustees. As a result, the President is now not much more than a ceremonial figurehead of the GU, and I have been left powerless to carry out the promises that I was democratically elected by the graduate student body to implement.
This new constitution was passed in a hurried and bizarre manner by the previous GU leadership; as a result, it contains numerous flaws. This has led the University body overseeing student unions “Council Committee for the Supervision of Student Unions (CCSSU)” to recently declare that the GU is in a severe constitutional crisis. Rather than mandating GU Council or its sub-committee including several MCR presidents to resolve the GU constitutional crisis, the CCSSU officials have forced the GU to hire mighty expensive private solicitors (upto £40,000 may be ripped off from the GU budget) to consult on constitutional matters. Furthermore, CCSSU have frozen the accounts of the Union, whilst the Charity Commission and the solicitors have asked me not to make any financial commitments. The Union has in effect been made totally dysfunctional. I sincerely believe that making the Union dysfunctional this year was the result of a conscious effort by a certain clique within the University to undermine student democracy.
Alongside these constitutional issues, I have found myself consistently blocked and hampered at every step and turn since starting my job as GU President. For example, despite it stating in the University’s Statutes and Ordinances that “The President of the Graduate Union shall be the principal financial officer of the Union and shall be accountable to the Council (University Council) for the financial management of the Union”, I have found that all financial responsibility and resources have been taken out of the hands of the President and placed in the hands of the unelected GU Administrator and GU Executive Committee members. This arrangement has not worked since day one, but when I tried to rectify the problem I was subjected to threats, and ultimately a motion of censure against me was proposed in Council.
Meanwhile, despite it being stated clearly in the new GU constitution that the President is responsible for convening GU Executive Committee meetings, several clandestine Executive Committee meetings have recently been called without me. These have been used as a platform to make unsubstantiated attacks against me, which I have not had a chance to defend myself against.
There are undoubtedly a number of students within the Cambridge graduate community who were not too pleased about my electoral victory, achieved on a platform to defend students against the government’s attacks on higher education. However, it is my belief that the campaign against me goes far beyond opponents within the student body, and in fact extends to officials within the University itself, who are frightened of the prospect of a Graduate Union that fights for student rights and takes a principled stand in defence of education and research.
It is not surprising that the upper echelons of the University would be afraid of such a prospect. Throughout the 11-day-long peaceful occupation of the Old Schools building in November-December 2010, students were met with threats and brash responses from University officials. More recently, we saw the incredibly heavy-handed nature of the University’s officials and their secretive “justice” system, when PhD student Owen Holland was handed a seven-term suspension for his part (reading a poem!) in a peaceful collective protest against the Coalition’s University Minister, David Willetts – the architect behind the £9,000 tuition fees. It is clear that, far from being a place that respects the democratic right to protest, Cambridge University is a place where student dissent is not tolerated.
The Graduate Union was instrumental in the campaign to see Owen’s sentence removed (in the end it was reduced to one term), and the University officials are clearly not keen to see the GU continuing to play a fighting role in leading the Cambridge student movement.
With a “winter of discontent” on the horizon in Britain, including the Trade Union Congress national demonstration on 20th October and the National Union of Students national demo on 21st November – both of which the GU was planning to support by providing coaches from Cambridge to London –the officials have, in recent days, gone to even further lengths to tie the hands of the GU and restrict its ability to campaign for students by freezing the GU accounts, meaning we cannot spend any money on campaigns and resources for students. In addition, they are trying to delay the election of GU Trustees, thus further restricting what the GU can do.
The logical position would be to temporarily revert to the old constitution and thus allow the GU to continue to function at this important time, when students – now more than ever – need a representing, campaigning student union. Instead, the GU has been left impotent and paralysed by the University administration, leaving Cambridge graduate students defenceless in the face of the attacks on their welfare and rights both on academic and social fronts.
All of this has been implemented by the University’s CCSSU which is a sub-committee of the University Council, whose task is to “secure that the unions operate in a fair and democratic manner and are accountable for their finances”. Despite their “democratic” aims, the CCSSU does not consist of any voting student representatives, and is chaired by an unelected external member of the University Council – Mr. John Shakeshaft, who happens to also be a banker and a former Executive Director of Morgan Stanley and ABN AMRO. The student unions in Cambridge, therefore, are far from being independent organisations that are able to defend and represent students, and are, in fact, tied to the whims of a committee of University officials and bankers.
As the recent scandal involving the threatened deportation of international students at London Metropolitan University demonstrates, the coalition government’s attacks on higher education students are ongoing and intensifying. The student movement needs fighting, campaigning student unions, and cannot allow itself to be immobilised by the bureaucratic and undemocratic behaviour of University officials and committees. What I have seen and experienced over the past few months as Graduate Union President, a politically motivated attack on the democracy and the proper functioning of our student organisations.
Last updated: Friday 28th September 2012, 10:22 BST