CUSU's application for the awards was submitted in LentLouis Ashworth

CUSU’s self-nomination for a National Union of Students award was riddled with factual errors and exaggerations, a Varsity investigation has found.

CUSU was a finalist in the ‘Small and Specialist Union’ category of the annual NUS Awards, which recognise the achievements of student unions across the country. However, analysis by Varsity showed that CUSU’s nomination for the award contained a number of factual discrepancies.

The nomination was submitted in Lent Term 2016 by CUSU’s Chief Executive Officer, Mark McCormack, and aimed to summarise the achievements of the CUSU team lead by Priscilla Mensah, last year’s president.

At the top of its list of achievements is the “Abolition of ‘Class Lists’ and removal of the infamous Tompkins Table” which it said “publicly pitch[es] Colleges against each other by the number of firsts students at each college are awarded.”

At the time nominations closed in May 2016, not only were Class Lists not abolished but the Grace proposing their abolition would not be submitted to Regent House for another two months. The Tompkins Table, which ranks Cambridge colleges on how their undergraduates perform in exams, was also published by Varsity this July.

Furthermore, in a referendum earlier this month, students voted to overturn a motion to campaign for the abolition of Class Lists which was previously passed by CUSU Council, with a majority of nearly 11 per cent. CUSU has now been bound to campaign in favour of keeping the Class Lists with an easier opt-out system. Regent House, the University’s top decision-making body, will vote at the end of this month to decide the fate of the Class Lists.

Referenda turnout also featured in the nomination, which reported the “Two-record breaking referendums (30%)” held last year. This refers to the NUS disaffiliation referendum in May, which recorded a record turnout, and the vote in January, which implemented the first CUSU Disabled Students’ Officer (DSO). It is not specified what the “30%” figure is meant to refer to, but if it is meant to represent turn-out then it is false for both referenda: the NUS and DSO referenda had turnouts of 28.7 per cent and 21.4 per cent respectively.

CUSU President Amatey Doku pinned the blame on last year’s teamCUSU

The nomination also claims to have reached an “Institutional agreement to introduce unconscious bias training to all academic staff from 2017”.  However, a document produced by CUSU as an ‘Unconscious Bias Training: Toolkit’ suggests that this claim is exaggerated, if not false.

Although the document notes how a proposal to introduce unconscious bias training to all porters was “unanimously passed by the Senior Tutors’ Committee”, Varsity could find no evidence of plans to introduce this training to all academic staff in 2017. This discrepancy is particularly notable as the NUS Judges commended CUSU for this part of their nomination.

As part of a lobbying guide for colleges contained in the document, CUSU said that they were struggling to push the guidance through to colleges, and “urgently” requested “the campaigning support and assistance of individual College JCRs/MCRs” to lobby for the implementation of unconscious bias training. Given that the document was published in July, two months after nominations for the NUS Awards closed, it seems CUSU could not have believed there was “institutional agreement” to introduce the training to all academic staff.

Other professed achievements offer a similarly exaggerated view of CUSU’s accomplishments. The nomination claimed the students’ union secured a “reduction of entry tests required of applicants”. This is in spite of large press coverage, months before the nominations opened, of the University’s decision to introduce pre-interview tests for the 2017 admissions cycle. Though CUSU is understood to have been involved in negotiating over the level of pre-interview testing, the reintroduction of testing was slammed in February by Alan Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, as having the “potential to raise a further barrier to equal access”.

A further claim in the nomination that “recording lectures is now permitted” is also dubitable for two reasons. The University allows recording of lectures not because of a CUSU campaign, but in compliance with the Equality Act 2010, which imposes a duty to allow recording of lectures to prevent discrimination towards disabled students. Despite this, many students have told Varsity they are still unable to record many of their lectures.

Some assertions were not demonstrably false but were hard to verify. Among these were a reference to successful “local-to-national press campaigns”, but it is it not specified which this was intended to refer to. Meanwhile, in its responses to how the students’ union guarantees that democratic processes are “open and inclusive”, the nomination listed, among other things, “always providing healthy foods”.

Although the nomination was submitted by McCormack, CUSU told Varsity that he had not written it. Under CUSU’s staff guidelines, staff members are shielded from speaking to the press. The current CUSU President, Amatey Doku, said: “A submission of this kind would not have been submitted without input from last year’s elected office” and that last year’s sabbatical officer team “were ultimately responsible for the submission”. Priscilla Mensah, who was CUSU President at the time of the submission, declined to comment when contacted.

Doku said that, while McCormack “might raise issues” with a nomination, “sabbatical officers always have the final say.”

An NUS spokesperson said that the awarding process “begins with self-assessment from students’ unions”, and the information is then “reviewed by NUS staff members” who have “expertise in the membership and the area of interest.”

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