The outgoing presidents (Zaynab Ahmed, left and Amelia Jabry, right) described the breach of sensitive student data as 'just a shit thing that happened'Cambridge SU

“The sabbs are out enjoying the sun” says a friendly Student Union staff member as I arrive at the deserted SU office in the middle of the afternoon in the peak of Cambridge’s exam season. I’m not given too long to admire the sweeping views of the River Cam before I am ushered to meet Cambridge’s primary student representatives: undergraduate SU president Zaynab Ahmed and postgraduate president Amelia Jabry.

Throughout the interview, both appear calm, friendly and well-prepared – even when questioned on the criticisms that have been levelled at the SU all year. The difficulties of the last twelve months are illustrated most clearly by continually falling levels of student engagement, especially in elections. Ahmed and Jabry were elected as presidents with a turnout of 12% in 2022. This had fallen from 18% in the previous year. When the most recent set of elections were held earlier this year, turnout had fallen again to 10.8%.

Jabry insists that this situation is something the SU is “continually aware of and concerned about”. Both presidents pushed back against the idea that falling turnout illustrates wider reduced student engagement. Ahmed and Jabry cited examples, including higher than normal nominations for the SU’s student-led teaching awards, to argue that engagement in the SU is less of a problem than many would argue. “I think it’s really important to recognise that students don’t just engage in the voting, but they engage in the breadth of things,” said Jabry.

“Academics who have been in the University for ages... think that they know what students want more than you”

One key issue, besides falling turnout, has defined the SU’s year. In January Varsity broke the news that students had been “effectively outed without even knowing it” after information about student sexualities and gender identities were disclosed in a data breach. After initially challenging this story, an independent report has since ruled that the SU made “fundamental mistakes”.

Ahmed says the SU is “aware that big mistakes were made” and that the Union’s future priority is to take time to “work with students and rebuild trust”. Jabry also apologised for the SU’s failures, and says the situation was “emotionally difficult”. Nonetheless, she insists that the report shows “we did everything with the right intentions and just had the wrong outcome at the time”, describing the breach as “just a shit thing that happened”.

On some issues, it can often seem that the SU is pursuing different, and incompatible, interests to the student population. The key ongoing dispute currently affecting students is the marking and assessment boycott – on which both Ahmed and Jabry were keen to stress a key point. “The cards are in the University’s hands to bring that to an end. And we will do everything we can to support that,” Ahmed says, acknowledging that “I don’t think we necessarily do the best job at communicating that with students.”

Ahmed (left) will hand over to Fergus Kirman (right) for the next academic yearDaniel Hilton

Ahmed reiterated again that “we just have to keep pushing and pushing until the university does the right thing.”

Ahmed and Jabry acknowledge that the SU has faced many difficulties during their time as presidents, saying that next year’s sabbatical officer positions may have received fewer than normal nominations because “the situations we’ve been put in this year maybe put other people off running”. However, both were eager to share their experiences of recent positive progress they had made. Jabry in particular highlights the success of the U-bus campaign as being “incredibly rewarding” as well as winning increased cost of living funding support for postgraduate research. Ahmed says her own personal highlight was her work on the student consultation framework, which aims to provide a guide for students and staff to “help make change happen”.

“The cards are in the University’s hands to bring [the marking boycott] to an end”

Despite their welcome positivity, it is clear that there is a gap between their earlier high aspirations and what they have achieved. Ahmed’s key priority has been her work on the introduction of a reading week to the University calendar, which was supported by 64% of students in a referendum last year. Ahmed appears frustrated when discussing the difficulties she has faced implementing this change, telling me it has “made me realise how slow change can be in the university”, describing it as an “institutional problem”.

Ahmed clarified that the proposal is currently in its “consultative and socialising phase” across sixteen different committees. Expressing her exasperation at the speed of the process, Ahmed says she believes it is “something that students have been crying out for” because “we’re in a mental health crisis, this university gives students an extremely high workload… we as an SU have stuck with this proposal because we think that this is the biggest fix fastest”.

Ahmed concluded: “I really hope that this gets through because I really do believe that if it gets through it will be worth it”.

Although Ahmed appeared irritated by the speed of change in the University, she praised pro-vice-chancellor for education Bhaskar Vira, who she describes as a “important and powerful ally” who has been “a real champion of the reading week”. Ahmed says that without Vira’s support she does not think “we would have had the response that we have”.

“We’re in a mental health crisis... we as an SU have stuck with [the reading week proposal] because we think that this is the biggest fix fastest”

Alongside problems negotiating with the University, the presidents were also keen to detail the difficulties their team had with “imposter syndrome” throughout the year. Ahmed highlighted that this year’s sabbs were the “first team at Cambridge to be all women and non-binary people, and mostly non-white”. Ahmed claims that because of this “academics who have been in the University for ages… think that they know better than you or they think that they know what students want more than you”. “If I wasn’t who I am, would I have had an easier time doing the work? Have I been challenged more? Because people see me as someone that they can intimidate and belittle”.

Despite these challenges, Ahmed says she is “not necessarily shutting down the option of a political career in the future”, following in the footsteps of other SU presidential alumni like Labour’s Wes Streeting. Jabry, on the other hand, was quick to rule out such a move, favouring a career “in education and policy” after a “long holiday”.


Mountain View

SU made ‘fundamental mistakes’ with student self-id data, report finds

While having undoubtedly faced issues outside of their control during their presidency, both Jabry and Ahmed seem unaware of the scale of apathy that the SU faces from students. Jabry acknowledges that “there’s always issues, and they’re always fixable”, rejecting incoming president Fergus Kirman’s view that the SU is “in a pit”. Ahmed was similarly positive, admitting that there’s “always room for improvement” but that “that’s really exciting”.

Ahmed and Jabry repeatedly claim that the SU is not as out of touch with students as some have argued. But the examples they use to justify this themselves illustrate the dissonance between the SU and the students they claim to represent. Are increasing nominations for teaching awards, setting up frameworks for activism and a climate change stakeholder map really the priorities for students in the midst of multiple ongoing crises?

As I left the interview, I could not shake the feeling that despite their best intentions, the SU would be better served if it was better at taking criticism, and paid more attention to what students actually want, rather than what they think students should want.