Peterhouse will vote on CUSU affiliation today and tomorrowLouis Ashworth

Proposed changes to CUSU’s affiliation fee model sparked debate at CUSU Council on Monday amid worries that the per capita levy being put forward by the university-wide union will negatively impact colleges where the JCR or MCR is currently disaffiliated. The motion was eventually not put to a vote and delayed until 7th November.

There were also concerns raised with regard to what the new fee model would mean for the ability of JCRs and MCRs to hold CUSU to account, with the proposals moving the basis of funding away from common room affiliation to CUSU to personal membership of the union.

Currently, funding is sourced from affiliated JCRs and MCRs with the total sum paid by a common room determined by the number of students that belong to it. CUSU receives £6.70 per undergraduate and £3.00 per graduate student, though the means by which these affiliation fees are paid varies from college to college – at some colleges the fee is taken out of the JCR or MCR’s budget, while elsewhere colleges pay the fee on behalf of the common room.  

The problem with the current system for CUSU is that students that are members of disaffiliated common rooms remain members of CUSU, which means that – as the motion presented to Council on Monday states – “students of a disaffiliated J/MCR benefit without contributing”.

Under a new fee model – which would also have to be approved by what CUSU President Amatey Doku calls the “shady Bursars’ Committee” after it is approved by the Council – CUSU would receive £5.90 for every undergraduate and graduate that doesn’t revoke their membership, regardless of whether they belong to an affiliated common room or not. Revenue from graduate students would be split equally been CUSU and the Graduate Union (GU).

The proposals first came under attack from the president of Darwin College Students’ Association (DCSA), Elaine Gray. Although Darwin is a graduate college, DCSA is not affiliated to the GU and currently only pays affiliation fees to CUSU – £1,750 in 2015-16.

If the new fee model were to be enacted however, DCSA’s affiliation fees would look set to rise to somewhere in the region of £3,400 to £3,900, since DCSA’s disaffiliation from the GU would no longer preclude them from GU affiliation fees. Instead, the onus would be on Darwin students to resign their membership of the GU.

Even then, CUSU’s proposals – at least in the form that they were presented to Council on Monday – are unclear as to what happens to the half of the £5.90 per capita levy that would have gone to the GU if the student in question had resigned membership of the GU.

Vice President of Robinson MCR Mark Driver’s reading of the proposal on Monday evening was that in such cases, common rooms would only pay half of the per capita levy, saying: “If you resign from the GU, CUSU doesn’t get that money”. Nevertheless, with the proposal as it was put to Council in the agenda and supporting documents, this reading would appear to rest on assumptions that are far from assured.

There were also concerns raised with regard to what the proposed changes would mean for JCRs that are currently disaffiliated from CUSU, namely Gonville and Caius Students’ Union (GCSU) and Corpus JCR.

While moving the basis of affiliation fees from common room affiliation to personal membership does tackle the problem of students benefitting without contributing, the president of Queens’ JCR Joseph Levin said that “this proposal has not thought about what happens when you give a bill to the bursar” at those colleges. “There’s no convincing reason why they won’t just raise fees that they charge undergraduates”, he continued.

Expounding on Levin’s comments, the president of Jesus College Student Union Daisy Eyre said that there could be potential ripple down effects for other JCR and MCR presidents as well.

Speaking to Varsity after Monday’s Council, Levin said that there was “a real risk” that the new model could lead to knock-on costs for students, “especially for colleges who are currently disaffiliated and under the new system will be hit with a big bill when they re-join”.

Levin also raised concerns that the changes being proposed will substantially erode the ability of common rooms to hold CUSU to account.

The concerns on this front are borne out of the fact that under the proposed fee model, JCRs and MCRs will effectively have a major bargaining chip taken away, since common room affiliation will no longer mean much for the CUSU coffers. Documents circulated by CUSU indicate that common room affiliation will still come at a price, albeit one “less than £100” – a fraction of what affiliation currently represents in terms of CUSU’s funding.

CUSU’s President, Amatey DokuLouis Ashworth

CUSU President, Amatey Doku defended this shift of accountability, asking a somewhat loaded question to Council: “Should disaffiliation include a financial incentive?” He was backed up by Driver, who said that common rooms that are currently disaffiliated and not paying are “essentially tax-dodging.”

Levin, however, stridently disagrees. “Disaffiliation is a totally meaningless gesture if there is no financial consequence for CUSU”, he told Varsity. “It is much easier for JCRs to hold CUSU sabbs to account than it is for individual students, and so taking that power away from JCRs isn't right. The fact of the matter is that the only people who show up to council on a regular basis to ask questions and propose policies are JCR reps.” 

“Currently the problem of ‘free-riding’ whereby colleges that aren’t affiliated get CUSU services off the back of other JCRs paying fees is relatively minor. 29 out of 31 colleges are affiliated! I imagine that means that well over 90 per cent of students are affiliated via their JCR. If 10 per cent or more of individual students wanted to disaffiliate themselves that means CUSU would end up losing money, and especially in the aftermath of that contentious referendum on the NUS last term I can easily see that happening.”

The proposals feed into a much wider conversation about how effectively CUSU is representing students. In the wake of last term’s referendum on Cambridge’s NUS membership, and the way in which CUSU defunded the print run of The Cambridge Student and then dealt with the subsequent outcry, student apathy seems to be fomenting into discontent in some quarters.

This weekend, Peterhouse’s JCR will hold a referendum on whether or not to disaffiliate from the central union – a measure that may prove to be toothless if a per capita levy is approved. “There is certainly a groundswell of antipathy towards CUSU,” eminent Pexiteer, Julian Sutcliffe told Varsity. “People notice their failings and notice how they ignore student voices over and over”.

And CUSU’s affiliation headache doesn’t seem set to end any time soon – Selwyn JCR will also hold a referendum on whether they want to retain their ties with CUSU this term, albeit out of constitutional necessity rather than a swell of dissatisfaction like at Peterhouse. Nevertheless, the last time the issue was put to Selwyn students, in 2013, the result was in favour of remaining affiliated only by the narrowest of margins