Monday could be a crucial day for CUSULouis Ashworth

CUSU Council isn’t renowned for being entertaining. This Monday, however, may prove an exception: Council will be debating whether to hold a referendum on CUSU’s National Union of Students (NUS) membership, laying out plans for the election of Cambridge’s first officer for disabled students, and voting on a budget which would see the Coordinator sabbatical role be abolished, and The Cambridge Student (TCS) go out of print.

It’s a lot to take in, so Varsity have prepared a guide to explain exactly what’s going on – what has happened, what is being proposed, and who the big figures involved are. Read on to find out more about what could become the most important event in University of Cambridge student politics this year.

WHAT'S BEING DISCUSSED?

Council, which is attended by voting representatives from JCRs and MCRs, will have to cast votes to decide, among other issues, whether to approve a mandate for a referendum on membership of NUS, and whether to ratify CUSU’s budget for 2016/17, which includes a huge cut to TCS’s finances, and the removal of the position of Coordinator. An agenda for the meeting and a provisional budget were sent out to JCR/MCR Presidents on Friday night – Varsity has picked out the key things you need to know about.

Among the documents is CUSU’s budget explanation. It asserts that it is not in “another ‘financial crisis’”, whilst going on to suggest that the broad cuts being made are being made at least partially as a knock-on effect of the new Disabled Students’ officer role.

NUS Disaffiliation

Following the election of Malia Bouattia as NUS President last week, a motion to hold a referendum on CUSU’s NUS membership was quickly proposed. Council will have to vote with a two-thirds majority in order to mandate a referendum.

Along with the minutes for council, CUSU disseminated a timeline for a referendum. It says that, if mandated by Council, voting for the referendum will take place from 17th to 20th May. The go-ahead for a referendum would see Cambridge join other universities across the county in allowing students to decide on NUS affiliation, including the University of Oxford, which voted for a referendum yesterday. Oxford previously held a vote in 2014, which was a heavy victory for staying in despite vote-rigging in favour of the leave vote. There are currently active campaigns for NUS disaffiliation in nearly 30 universities nationwide. 

The motion put forward to Council bases its arguments entirely upon the controversy surrounding allegedly anti-Semitic remarks made by Bouattia, neglecting any broader criticisms of NUS. It says that Bouattia’s election “constitutes a fundamental change in the organisation’s direction”, and that she has “failed to address and apologise for previous anti-Semitic language”. On Tuesday, Cambridge’s Jewish Society endorsed disaffiliation

The motion is notable in that it resolves “to mandate that CUSU sabbatical officers stay officially neutral during this referendum” – a gagging clause which would result in an altered referendum campaign style. Under current rules, sabbatical officers are allowed to state an opinion, unless they are on the Elections Committee which manages all CUSU-related votes.

Though the Elections Committee would still be obligated to produce material explaining the effects of NUS membership upon CUSU, if this motion passed unamended it would silence the voices of CUSU’s officers, who possess the closest knowledge of the benefits and costs of membership.

If the motion fails at Council, it is likely that a referendum will occur anyway – the ‘NUS: Let Cambridge Decide’ campaign, which is leading the call for disaffiliation, would simply need to get 350 signatures on a petition to mandate a referendum. Several JCRs and MCRs will not hold a committee meeting to form a voting stance in time for Monday. Any referendum would require the winning vote to make up at least 10 per cent of the electorate to succeed.

There is some indication that CUSU may have made a constitutional error in recent years, failing to pass a required annual vote to renew affiliation with external bodies – on Monday it may be revealed just how egregious an error this is.

The Cambridge Student

CUSU’s budget for next year reveals a drastic drop in funding for The Cambridge Student (TCS), following last week’s revelation that its print edition may be under threat due to cuts. In the budget for 2016/17, CUSU funding for TCS has been cut to just £6,200, down from £24,430 budgeted for this year. The budget also sees TCS’s projected income fall from £32,140 to £11,000.

The area most affected by this is planned expenditure on “production and distribution costs”, which are set to drop from £21,460 in 2015/16 to just £1,700. However, there will be a funding increase for one part of TCS: website development and maintenance, which will receive twice as much funding in the upcoming year, its allocation rising to £3,000. The proposed budget has to be ratified by CUSU council before it can be enacted.

Last week, an internal CUSU email seen by Varsity revealed that a planned “reduction in resource allocation for TCS in the 2016/17 budget” had led to plans to end the paper’s print edition. The email claimed that the proposal that TCS go entirely online, ending its 17-year print run, was justified as “the cost of the paper has for some time outweighed the revenue it brings in.”

CUSU freely acknowledges its many financial troubles, and the email cites “reduction in revenue capacity of some income streams”, the “increased size of the sabbatical team” – including the new Disabled Students’ Officer (DSO) role – the “increased organisational cost-base”, and the “lack of university support” as contributing factors to the cuts.

Unsurprisingly, the proposal has been met with widespread resistance from current and former TCS journalists, including Zoah Hedges-Stocks, Editor-in-Chief of TCS in Michaelmas and Lent 2011, who said that a move online could be “the beginning of the end” for the paper.

She added that CUSU’s behaviour on the matter “appears to be both unconstitutional and bafflingly illogical”, since, she claimed, “TCS is still turning a profit.”

“It seems very strange that a financially-troubled student union would want to cripple something that makes money and helps students”, she continued.

However, the assertion that TCS is making money must be taken with a pinch of salt, as CUSU has responded to these claims with a statement clarifying that the paper has in fact been been operating at a loss for some time: “Some reports have suggested TCS is a profit making venture. The assertion appears to be based on projected figures in the 2015-16 budget and not on actual received income. Despite the hard work of the TCS team and support of CUSU, the paper has in fact made a loss in recent years.”

The statement also emphasised the fact that “The CUSU Board of Trustees has not made any decisions regarding the future of The Cambridge Student (TCS)”, and stressed that “[a]ny decisions regarding the CUSU Budget are subject to approval by CUSU Council.”

CUSU Coordinator

The CUSU elections during Lent term resulted in an incoming team of sabbatical officers short of a Coordinator, as there were no applicants for the post.

In the event of such a vacancy, the CUSU Constitution allows sabbatical officers to “temporarily employ a member of staff to carry out the non-representational elements of the post”, though a motion that will be proposed by the incumbent Coordinator, Jemma Stewart – which calls for the election of her successor to be deferred – raises questions over what the long term future of the role will be.

The rationale for deferring the election of CUSU’s next Coordinator is that CUSU is currently undertaking a period of Constitutional review, and that allowing the post to remain vacant while this happens “would allow for a more honest and meticulous evaluation of the role without having to be concerned about the emotional well-being of a person in the role.”

However, wording elsewhere reads ominously for the continued existence of a CUSU Coordinator. The motion appears to work from a belief that the role is “outdated and unnecessary in the current climate of CUSU, with a strong staff support team to carry out the administration of the Union.”

Furthermore, the motion considers the representational duties of the role to be meagre, restricted to the Sports Committee, Societies’ Syndicate, and the various subsidiaries of these two bodies.

Moreover, CUSU’s proposed budget for 2016/17 makes no provision for the role of Coordinator. This comes after a reduction in the size of the sabbatical team was listed among the cost-cutting initiatives, which were mooted alongside plans to cut funding to TCS in an email – sent to TCS Trustees and CUSU sabbatical officers – by CUSU’s General Manager, Mark McCormack, last week.

In a budget briefing authored by Stewart and McCormack, it says that “should the members feedback … that the coordinator fills a representational deficit felt by the membership, then the issue of funding will be revisited.” For now, however, CUSU are intent on defunding the position.

If passed, the motion would mean there would be no by-election for a new Coordinator this term and would see the responsibilities of Coordinator apportioned out, the administrative workload being distributed amongst CUSU staff, and representative duties being picked up by the other sabbatical officers.

Disabled Students’ Officer

The uncertainty surrounding the position of Coordinator has also brought confusion over the future of the Disabled Students’ Officer Sabbatical role, which was created by referendum in February this year.

The new position was supported by 92.22 per cent of voters in a referendum in which 4679 votes were cast. The DSO would be a full-time position, adding to the existing six sabbatical officer roles: President, Education, Welfare and Rights, Women’s, Coordinator and Access.

But, as noted above, the Constitution and Standing Orders are vague on whether a by-election for Coordinator must be held, and some have raised questions about whether there is a need for the role at all. Consequently, by-elections for both the Coordinator position and the DSO position have yet to be scheduled.

A motion proposed by Cornelius Roemer noted that the status of the Constitution after the DSO Referendum is unclear and emphasised the belief that a decision on the by-elections “should not be pre-empted by CUSU’s Trustees, Executive, or staff before the matter has been decided upon by Council”.

Nonetheless, it proposed that CUSU resolve that preparations be made for by-elections as soon as possible, so that an election can be held by the end of Easter term. Nominations could open as soon as 9am on 3rd May, paving the way for voting from 16th May and a result on 23rd May.

The DSO will operate as head of the autonomous CUSU Disabled Students' Campaign, which itself is projected to cost £2,000 according to the 2016-17 budget, the same amount as other autonomous campaigns. According to a source in CUSU, they will work full-time and be paid £20,200 a year (with additional costs amounting to £2,446), the same salary as other elected CUSU officers after this year’s one per cent pay rise.

Though the position was incredibly popular in the recent referendum, these further costs add to an already strained CUSU budget. The proposed cuts to TCS are just one example of the possible price of the new sabbatical position.


MOVERS AND SHAKERS: THE PEOPLE WHO COULD SHAPE MONDAY'S DISCUSSION 

Priscilla Mensah

As CUSU President, Priscilla Mensah will be a key figure in all the debates which might occur. Last week, she attended NUS conference, and was defeated in her run for Vice-President for Higher Education by incumbent Sorana Vieru. Mensah is unlikely to directly oppose any referendum, to avoid being perceived as anti-democratic, but her thoughts on the topic will be highly valuable.

During the Disabled Students’ Officer referendum, Mensah was a member of Elections Committee, which meant she was not allowed to comment on the campaign. The financial fallout of that campaign, including the provisional cuts to TCS, were not clearly discussed during the campaign, and this time around students may look to Mensah for more direct leadership.

Jemma Stewart

CUSU Coordinator Jemma Stewart, whose responsibility it is to take minutes during Council, is unlikely to be a hugely prominent presence in terms of giving speeches – typically, she speaks only to clarify issues, and, along with Council Chair Brendan Mahon, serves in a mediating capacity.

However, it is her role of Coordinator which is on the line. Though she will be leaving after two years as Coordinator this summer, she is still well placed to outline the role’s responsibilities, and whether its existence is still necessary.

Cornelius Roemer

Ex-Trinity JCR President Cornelius Roemer, who is the student representative at University Council, came in third place for CUSU President after a controversial campaign period. Since his defeat, he has spawned a number of web platforms for himself, in both a personal and representative capacity.

Roemer is the proposer for the final motion of the night, which seeks to compel CUSU into seeking new budgeting possibilities. The motion, which Roemer described as being designed to save TCS, resolves among other things that preparations for the elections for Coordinator and DSO are started as soon as possible.

Though he denied his interest in the position of Coordinator during the Presidential election campaign, it is strongly rumoured that Roemer might stand if/when nominations re-open. Therefore, it is possible to see a little self-interest in his motion – Roemer’s motion does as much to secure the continuity of Coordinator as it does to help TCS. In fact, despite the immediate support Roemer received from a raft of former TCS editors, the motion doesn’t even suggest that TCS should continue to exist in print –  it simply makes recommendations for budgeting procedures.

Jack May

Chair of TCS’s board, Jack May – two-time editor of the threatened paper, turned Tab columnist – is in for a busy night. Not only is he intimately involved with any discussion of the future of his former paper which may occur, he is also self-appointed spokesperson for ‘NUS: Let Cambridge Decide’. Presumably he will be making several speeches, though it is possible that, if the referendum debate veers onto the topic of Bouattia’s perceived anti-Semitism, he will allow motion seconder and fellow Tab writer Adam Crafton to speak.

Olly Hudson

Sidney Sussex JCR president Olly Hudson may well choose to speak at Council if he attends. Hudson was among the group of delegates which Cambridge sent to Brighton for NUS conference, and, though he condemned the conference’s decision making over recognising Holocaust memorial day, advocated CUSU’s continued membership of the NUS at a Union debate last week, saying of students who wish for Camxit: “those who want to disengage have never engaged”, and describing the debate over Bouattia’s comments as “not a fight that’s going to be won by throwing toys out of the pram”.

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