"People from disadvantaged backgrounds deserve ways of accessing the Union.”Phoebe Pickering

“Today I was rung by the President of a country, out of the blue. And I was like, ‘ah, good morning!’” is one of the first things Keir tells us when we ‘meet’ with him over Zoom. He seems excited yet exhausted, perhaps inevitably so after 8 hours of Zoom interviews. Perhaps, too, because this term’s Union President is rarely disconnected. “I used to turn my phone on silent every night before I went to bed. Now I leave it on because I get random calls on and off all the time.” After a stint as Speakers Officer in Lent term, the same Keir who initially “came into the Union with a sense of imposter syndrome,” became President of Cambridge University’s most prestigious student institution.

Presiding over any university society, especially one as large as the Cambridge Union, carries with it a weight of responsibilities, something Keir came to understand very early on. During the pandemic, election rules changed, allowing members to send thousands of messages to students on Facebook to encourage them to vote for a particular candidate online. Non-Union and Union members alike quickly became annoyed, casting the society in a bad light.

This Michaelmas, however, voting procedures have changed – a reform brought about by Debates Officer Sophie West. Keir confirms that “[you’ll] vote by walking into the chamber and by putting a physical slip in a ballot box”, something he suggests is “more enforceable than banning messaging - which used to happen anyway, or secretly at least.” He emphasises that in-person voting will localise the process. “If I message [a stranger] to say, ‘come to the Union to go out of the way to vote for me’, I’m going to get told to sod off.” The change means that the voting system will no longer benefit the candidate most successful at laying siege to students’ inboxes on Facebook, something that previously deterred many from the Union as they settled into Cambridge student politics.

Alongside the voting system, Keir hopes to address another issue which previously deterred some freshers from joining: the membership prices. ” This Michaelmas, Keir says, “there’ll be a couple of programs and policies announced soon for those with financial need.” This includes the brand new Stephen Fry scholarships, which provide fully funded membership for STEM students, in addition to an extensive bursary scheme. Keir and his team acknowledge that “people from disadvantaged backgrounds deserve ways of accessing the Union,” and that “it should never be a barrier that someone can’t afford to join us.”

Given its nature as a political society, the Union primarily caters for the interests of Cambridge’s humanities students, which has, at times, caused a sense of exclusivity. When discussing this issue, Keir identifies its self-fulfilling nature. “If you have lots of humanities students, they put on events that humanities students want to see, and so the new intake only then gets that kind of thing on offer.” The Union’s lack of diversity has been a long- standing issue. In recent terms, however, it has been addressed more concretely, beginning with the introduction of an elected Equalities Officer, and followed up by some of the most diverse termcards in Union history.

The current committee intend to retain this momentum, and the Equalities Officer, Zara Salaria, has been pressing on with plans to further diversify both the Union’s speaker and social events. Keir adds that the Union wishes for “speaker invitations to come from people who have come from all over the place and who have all sorts of interests in their subjects.” The easing of government restrictions will help this aspiration, as mass-scale social events at the Union, like the Freshers’ Ball, resume. With a broader range of events, the Union will hopefully attract more non-humanities students.

Given the bursaries, scholarships, diversified termcard and modified voting practices, the society seems to be moving in a more inclusive and accessible direction. Keir expresses his team’s aspiration to make the Union a place everyone can access.


Mountain View

“I definitely do have responsibility; the level of that responsibility I don’t know yet.” Max Fosh at The Cambridge Union

We learn that Keir’s early experience at Cambridge was instrumental in shaping the way he approaches his position in the Union now. He is clearly amused as he recalls his own experience of freshers’ week. He smiles as he introduces us to the early Keir, the timid adolescent who wandered into Queens’ College two years ago. “I was so nervous and scared of meeting anyone that I threw up multiple times, stayed in, and then missed all of the first freshers’ activities.” Keir credits the Union for bringing him from “being a complete nervous wreck to slowly coming out of [his] shell.” This encapsulates how Keir wishes to approach the Union: at the end of his tenure, he hopes to “help everyone have a similar kind of experience” to his own.

Before we hit the ‘end meeting’ button on our laptops, we ask Keir who his three speakers would be at the Union, if he had the pick of the bunch. “Dead or alive?” He asks. Either or, we respond. He pulls at his hair, “do you know what’s awful? Every single Union candidate gets told to prepare for this question, and I still don’t know!” We all laugh, before turning the spotlight back on Keir. Acknowledging he has “massively overthought this”, he comes up with three categories and walks us through them step-by-step. A few minutes after our interview ends, we receive a message: “Kate Bush, Richard Ayoade, David Attenborough”. Let’s see who will eventually make the stage.