Amatey Doku is nearing the end of his year as CUSU presidentLouis Ashworth

It’s an interesting time for Amatey Doku.  

He is in the twilight of his CUSU career; a president-elect (and college daughter in the Doku dynasty) hovers in the wings; and a senior post in the NUS awaits. However, as he observes wryly, “my job is firefighting 90 per cent of the time”.

Presently, the fires show no sign of abating. The NUS remains discredited after the débâcle of the Bouattia presidency. Closer to home, CUSU is in a financial crisis, having recently voted to run at a deficit of £75,000 for the next financial year – the first time that the Union has ever opted to run at a loss.

Before considering the challenges which lie ahead, I ask him to identify his presidency’s successes. “With this job, it can be very difficult to find everyday successes,” he explains, “because many of the changes you make only bear fruit a year or two down the line.” 

“In terms of union development, our new constitution and standing orders are the biggest things I can take responsibility for. They lay the foundations for what CUSU can do.” He is also proud of Cambridge’s progress on the Race Equality Charter: “to hear senior member of the university confronting these issues, saying there are problems, has been a real highlight of my time”.

“I regret not taking more time, before I started, to set down more concretely things I wanted to do”

Amatey Doku

Picking out regrets is a harder task. After a long pause, he says slowly: “I regret not taking more time, before I started, to set down more concretely things I wanted to do. The reality is, though, it doesn’t matter what you put down, it will have to change.” Take note, Daisy Eyre.

Irrespective of Doku’s regrets – or lack of them – his presidency has resulted in a huge promotion of CUSU’s public profile, through new Facebook profiles, spamming college groups and adventures in AmateyLive. I put it to him that he has inspired a ‘cult of Amatey’.  

He laughs: “I’m not sure I would describe it as a cult! And I certainly cannot take credit for the meme-ification of Cambridge this year. Memebridge isn’t an organisation funded by CUSU to promote the CUSU president. It’s just been a very weird aspect of my year, although it does no harm.”

It certainly hasn’t done any harm. In fact, Doku's public image management is indicative of his abilities as a consummate politician. His delivery is excellent and he has mastered his brief better than certain members of the Labour front bench; he certainly does better interviews. He deploys politicians’ commonplaces with ease: “let me be very clear” and “if we knuckle down to it” are his favourites.

Incumbent CUSU President Amatey Doku was elected NUS Vice-President for Higher EducationNUS UK

As the incoming NUS Vice President for Higher Education, Doku will soon have a national platform for those skills. Given that this position will coincide with the opening of the Brexit negotiations and progress on Higher Education reform, I ask him what his priorities are.

The answer is “damage control”. Although, as he points out, the Higher Education and Research Bill has passed into legislation, he wants to “make strategic alliances across the sector to mitigate the worst aspects of the Bill.”  

“There’s also going to be an independent review into the TEF and whether it should be linked to fees. [The NUS] needs to be at the forefront of that; I will be touring student unions across the country to ensure that they are participating in that process.”

On Brexit, Doku wants government assurances against “any dramatic rise in fees for EU students who have been admitted in last few years” and further guarantees on the funding for future research collaborations.

More broadly, he advocates “reaching out” to student unions across Europe to encourage all negotiating parties to back future research collaborations and to stem the haemorrhage of international students numbers both to and from the UK. ‘AmateyNational’ is seemingly destined for an international audience.

Doku's internationalist pitch suggests that all is quiet on the NUS’ domestic front. The only hint of criticism in his reply is a passing observation that the previous leadership team was “distracted”. Pressing him on the issue, I ask whether “distracted” is the polite term for “disastrous”, courtesy of the contentious nature of the outgoing president and the Union’s penchant for attracting news attention for all the wrong reasons.

“This is an unhelpful, entirely irrelevant narrative about students which delegitimises all their other concerns.”

Amatey Doku

“Yes…” he begins, very slowly. “I think it’s good that that we have fresh leadership. I did not support Malia Bouattia’s presidency.  She’s struggled to shift attention away from herself and concerns about anti-Semitism, leaving the NUS unable to talk about wider issues. That said, she has not necessarily been supported in the best way either.” He points to the “huge infighting in the top team”  and press “exposés” to explain why the “reputation of the Union is suffering.”  

Then he begins the counter-attack: “despite those concerns, there is a narrative about students which is very unhelpful which has allowed the government to make changes to higher education without significant challenge.”  

He cites a number of problems: “students fees are going through the roof; there are huge welfare concerns; the impact of Brexit; a 26 per cent black attainment gap”. 

“But whenever students come in the news, it’s about no-platforming and safe spaces,” he argues. “This is an unhelpful, entirely irrelevant narrative about students which delegitimises all their other concerns.”

However, he would not be drawn to explicitly state that the NUS should not make judgements on foreign policy issues, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, despite repeating that there were “plenty of other issues to be focussing on.” Perhaps he is acutely aware that certain forces will always compel the NUS to set out its opinion on a matter, whether anybody will listen or not.

The final topic for discussion is the sticky issue of CUSU’s finances and organisation. I ask Doku whether the personnel or structure of CUSU will change following the recent financial losses.

Rather than discussing the present funding difficulties directly, Doku instead argues that the University needs to give CUSU more money. “The really important thing is that the university is not giving students the student union it deserves. If you compare the amount of money that other universities of our size, of our reputation give to their unions, Cambridge is right at the bottom.”

Drawing the interview to a close, Doku adds a final comment. “I just want to pay tribute to the other sabbatical officers.  This job can take quite a significant toll on those officers personally. Because CUSU doesn’t have an army of support staff, we have to deal with an awful lot ourselves… This job is much harder than doing a Cambridge degree.”

No doubt Doku's new job in the NUS will be even more challenging. As he smiles and sees me out, though, I sense that he is quite ready for it