Fergus Kirman, the newly elected UG president of Cambridge Students’ UnionSam Hudson with permisson for Varsity

When Fergus Kirman was elected in March, he represented a dramatic change to the SU’s swampy status quo. Between their shambolic handling of a data leak last year and quixotic policies – perhaps best embodied by the pledge to make all University catering plant-based – it is no surprise that students were hungry for the change Kirman had promised throughout his campaign.

And perhaps more so than anyone else within the SU, Kirman has been frank about the need for a change in course. In the immediate aftermath of his victory, Kirman told Varsitywe’re in a pit,” teasing that “change was coming”. As to what that change will look like, I spoke to the man to find out.

Kirman presents himself as a liberal reformer. He wants to prioritise manageable change over the lofty yet unachievable goals which have all too often been pursued by the SU. “Sometimes when you’re in this position, you can get engaged in big, national and international level change, when often what students want are changes that affect them now.”

One popular example of the “small, tangible” change championed by Kirman is his flagship policy to cover prescription costs of students. Kirman told me that this policy is going ahead and that JCRs at every college would have the opportunity to launch the scheme. He confirmed that, at the time of our interview (14/09), two colleges had already joined the scheme, but he concedes: “that’s two down, 27 to go.” Kirman is “very optimistic” that more JCRs will want to sign on to his plan. The plan fits into his wider aim of increasing engagement with the SU. “This is a really key area where we get results by working together [with JCRs].”

On the reading week, Kirman is “absolutely committed” to continue the campaign for it, seeing the referendum that supported it as a good example of the democratic policy he wants more of. He acknowledges that it must be “so frustrating” for “progress to be slow” in the actual implementation of the week, but adds that “we have already made so much progress” having the University acknowledge problems with student workloads.

“Students have very understandably been losing faith in student unionism”

A significant issue facing the SU – and one that Kirman is more than a little familiar with – is the progressive decline in turnout at SU elections. The turnout at the Easter election which put Kirman in power was only 10.8%, down from 12% last year and 18% the year before. I asked him whether it was simply the case that most Cambridge students were just simply uninterested in student politics and too occupied with their degrees. He disagreed with my more pessimistic assessment but admitted that “students have very understandably been losing faith in student unionism”. Kirman told me, to solve this problem with apathy, “you have to get the basics right [...] You have to do the things that connect with all students, not just certain types of students.”

This focus on delivering what students actually want is a central component of his vision for reform. It is not the SU’s job to “tell students what to think,” rather it is the job of the SU to do what students tell them to. I ask him whether in the past the SU has spent too much time preaching from the altar instead of listening to their congregation. Kirman is diplomatic about his predecessors, saying that the issues the SU championed “really mattered” to him but “we can always do better at talking a bit less and listening a bit more.” This makes a striking contrast with the insistence of previous presidents that the SU is not as out-of-touch as it is often characterised. And though Kirman is careful not to criticise the efforts of previous SU leadership teams, it is clear he has positioned himself as a clean break from the unpopular status quo.

Kirman’s incremental reformism is likely to put him at odds with some other members of the SU’s leadership. The SU naturally still attracts the sorts of idealists whose mould Kirman is trying to break. On issues such as strikes and support for the UCU, this rift is particularly clear. Asked whether he would hypothetically support another Marking and Assessment Boycott (MAB) next Easter, Kirman does not wish to speculate that far ahead. However, he does emphasise that his priority in the coming year “will always always be the undergraduate students” who he represents.


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Kirman’s hesitancy to say whether he would support UCU action, hypothetical though it may be, is another significant break from the SU’s status quo. Previous presidents have unconditionally supported UCU action, and the SU itself has gone on strike in solidarity in the past. There is good reason for this change, as Kirman’s more equivocal approach reflects an increasingly undecided student body. A Varsity survey on attitudes towards the MAB found that around half of the responses showed scepticism of the action. By contrast, attitudes towards a supervision boycott were much more supportive.

A key message Kirman wanted to get across while I spoke to him was his wish for students to get involved with the SU itself. To students who want the SU to “do something different” Kirman’s suggestion is to “get involved and make it different.” There is a deeply practical reason for Kirman’s messaging. Without more allies within the SU, he will find it difficult to pursue the reform that he desperately wants. And without any reform, the SU can only but continue to stagnate in its relevance to student life.