Cheap pints would be the most effective way to engage students in the SULucas Maddalena for Varsity

Did you make any academic new year’s resolutions? Any pledges to yourself/your DoS to quit filthy habits? Well, Fergus Kirman did. Last March, upon his election as our Students’ Union’s new undergraduate president, in a poll which saw turnout drop to a record low 10.8%, he told Varsity: “we are in a pit and we’ve got to get out of it. Change is coming.”

It was a commendable pledge; now it’s time for him to keep it – and if he wants to avoid it going the way of my commitment to get to lectures on time, he had better have something radical in mind.

To understand the problem, let’s take one example. Last year, the SU voted to ask university cafes to go vegan. This prompted, in the words of one representative, “significant feedback from our community; the majority of which was in opposition”. I can only assume that this is code for enraged Sidge-dwellers declaring that “the SU can take my ARC panini when they pry it from my cold dead hands.”

This is most students’ experience of the SU: they don’t listen to it. When they do listen, they don’t like what they hear – and even when they get (angrily) invested they lose interest once it becomes apparent that the SU can’t actually implement whatever crackpot scheme it’s come up with. Instead it boldly demands that the University implement it, at which point I assume the vice-chancellor’s minions earnestly accept the proposal, nod gravely, and file it in a drawer labelled “SU wheezes, 2022/23”.

Well, here’s my own plan for fixing the SU, which I am fittingly powerless to impose and am confident will never go anywhere: President Kirman, the SU needs a bar.

“President Kirman, the SU needs a bar.”

I had this realisation in Glasgow last month. A friend was giving me a tour, and the first thing she wanted me to see was the Glasgow University Union. I don’t think anyone has ever included the SU lounge on their tour of Cambridge. But then our SU doesn’t have darts, pool tables, or cheap beer. It isn’t packed with students killing time between lectures. In fact it is, in the words of the only person I know who has actually been inside, “the deadest place on Earth”.

The main weakness of Cambridge’s collegiate system is that students can feel siloed. Unless you sign up for uni-wide societies (like Varsity – freshers take note), it can be hard to meet people outside your college. There is an acute need for a communal space open to all students and not owned by Greene King. If our SU met this need by setting up a bar, then not only would it be fulfilling its founding function of giving students what they want – it would also become relevant to our lives.

If students directly benefited from the SU’s actions, spent time in its building, and could corner sabbatical officers mid-pint for a chat about their campaigns, they might just be inclined to care about what the SU does, and maybe even vote in its elections. This is the model for other SUs nationwide. The Leeds University Union website advertises two bars, a bubble tea stall, and a Co-op franchise – all run by their version of our SU, in addition to its campaigning activities. UCL’s Students’ Union runs four bars and four cafes, as well as representing students. The same picture emerges at Warwick and Bristol and Sheffield – almost everywhere except Cambridge, in fact.

“The SU cannot represent students from the periphery of student life.”

The SU cannot represent students from the periphery of student life. If it wants our engagement, it should follow the example of other student unions and place itself at the heart of the Cambridge experience – by opening a bar.

Needless to say, this would be no panacea. The SU’s problems run deeper than an inability to flog pints. As long as it is more interested in culture warfare and mawkish idealism than in improving students’ lives, it will continue to be a playground for student Corbynites rather than an effective representative body.


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Equally, as long as criticising the SU’s unelected employees is forbidden, I fear it is doomed to continue spending almost £800,000 per year on staffing costs which do not bring any obvious benefit to students. It cannot be beyond the pale to suggest that an SU with fewer staff and more money to spend directly on students would be better for us. After all, it is meant to be our union.

Just touching on these points feels rather like applying a can-opener to a tin marked ‘worms’. Having a real debate would be messy and controversial, and frankly I don’t expect it to happen soon. But if one day we do decide to address the inadequacies of the body tasked with representing us, the discussion will surely be far more civilised if we can have it over a pint, in a newly-upgraded SU lounge.