CUSU’s offices at 17 Mill Lane, seen from Silver Street. The student union is in the midst of a funding crisisLouis Ashworth

A leaked email, sent to CUSU staff by general manager Mark McCormack, raises further questions about CUSU’s U-turn over how it lost hundreds of thousands of pounds.

In the email leaked to Varsity, which seems to have been sent in the days following the revelation that CUSU was anticipating heavy losses to its reserves, McCormack describes the student union’s attempts to move away from St James’s House (SJH), a company whose publications have been a cornerstone of CUSU’s finances for some time.

McCormack repeated claims that CUSU experienced financial difficulty as a result of contract ‘slippage’, in which SJH was late to deliver on annual publications. CUSU president Amatey Doku initially made the allegation at Council on 1st May, but the student union has subsequently changed its story significantly.

The email also suggests CUSU based its budgets for several years upon publication income it had no guarantee of receiving. McCormack told staff that income was dependent upon SJH actually producing new publications, with no assurance of money for CUSU if they did not.


❝ Student Press are largely promoting a narrative that the contracts were mismanaged. The contract was put together by a respectable law firm and included and range of precautions. However it is quite reasonable that any contract be unable to force the publisher to pay CUSU should no actual product have been produced by them, irregardless of any commitments within the contract to pay CUSU annually.

Council members criticised CUSU for not having reported this funding insecurity sooner. Connor MacDonald, Emmanuel JCR president, told Varsity the contract was “not reasonable, obviously”.

“It speaks to significant credibility problems that an organisation can present a budget to student representatives knowing full well that some of the budgeted income was almost speculative”, MacDonald said.

Trinity College Students’ Union president Toby Henley Smith echoed this, saying “CUSU has made mistakes in its deals. It’s simply not reasonable to sign a contract worth that much of their budget without any guarantees”. However, he stressed that there was no value in a “witch-hunt”, due to the rapid turnover of CUSU trustees, saying the organisation instead “needs to learn from its mistakes and move on to make better financial decisions”.

Sebastian Wrobel, Wolfson External Officer, said “On the face of it, this contract seems to be not a good deal for CUSU but it might have very well been the only deal realistically achievable. However, what I don’t understand is why CUSU Sabbs failed to disclose the risk of no publications income to CUSU Council in two consecutive years.”

Doku declined to comment on the contents of the email.

CUSU General Manager Mark McCormack sent the email to staff in the aftermath of revelations about the student union’s financesLinkedIn

At Council on Monday, CUSU announced it had struck a new, one-year deal with SJH, which it said would bring in £60,000 by its financial year end in June. In an email to student press sent on Wednesday, CUSU said that its relationship with SJH had been “misrepresented”, and insisted the publisher “has at every stage sought to accommodate CUSU’s financial situation”. In a draft budget, CUSU said its contract with SJH had ended in 2015, and it had begun negotiations to form a new contract in 2016. Doku did not answer questions from Varsity as to why the student union altered its account of events.

McCormack’s comments in the leaked email cast further doubt over which of the two stories CUSU told is true. In it, he told staff that “the careers contract [with SJH] had been creating difficulties in recent years as the publication was slipping – the annual publication became more of a 14–16 month publication”.

He claimed that slippage resulted in CUSU’s large subsequent losses, saying “The slipping of publication dates resulted in CUSU not receiving income for two financial years, with the impact of this reducing CUSU’s reserves (i.e. savings) by significant amounts”.

The original slippage story is further reinforced by newly-released minutes of the CUSU trustee board. At a meeting in early December last year, McCormack told trustees that publication delays would deepen predicted losses.


❝ [Mark McCormack] presented the item, which concerned CUSU’s Careers Guide and its associated income, which would then impact upon the year-end balance of the financial year 2015–16. The publication dates had slipped and the schedule for publications had extended beyond the current funding terms. The result would have an impact on the funding expected in the financial year and therefore would further deepen an expected loss for the financial year. It was possible that the loss need to be [sic] account to an alternative financial year. ❞

Taken together, McCormack’s statements suggest that CUSU believed for some time that further publications would be forthcoming, a position which Doku retracted in the draft budget. CUSU now says that Cambridge Strategies – a website and ebook released in March 2016 – was the “final publication of the contract”.

The leaked emails and trustee reports also highlight CUSU’s attempts to move away from SJH, with McCormack telling staff “CUSU attempted to move away from St James’ House in 2010, but this attempt failed”.

An internal ‘Funding Strategy’ document, written by McCormack and presented to trustees in July, says that CUSU’s arrangements with SJH were considered sufficiently insecure to be placed on the University’s risk register.


❝ CUSU keeps asking for replacement funds for SJH because it is dependent on SJH funding. The University keep saying ‘no’, or agreeing to one-year funds on an assumption we could obtain the same surplus elsewhere. Recent events with CIE have resulted in the Comms Office agreeing to place our work with St James’ House on the University’s risk register (this may improve chances of funding). ❞

In the leaked email, McCormack said that as a result of slippage, CUSU’s trustees have “resolved to cease engagements with the publication for future years, unless more stringent contractual terms can be negotiated”.

Speaking to Varsity’s CamFM radio show The Sunday Review on 7th May, CUSU vice-president, education officer and trustee Roberta Huldisch spoke about recent negotiations with SJH, saying the publisher was “not really giving CUSU the terms we thought we needed”. “It became more and more clear [the] money would never come in,” she said.

LISTEN: Explaining the black hole in CUSU’s new budget

Varsity’s current affairs radio show, The Sunday Review, talks budgets and overspending with Editor-at-Large Louis Ashworth and CUSU Vice President Roberta Huldisch. The Sunday Review is hosted by Peter Chappell and Martha O’Neil.

The new contract announced between CUSU and SJH this week is expected to result in a publication arriving in June, meaning the student union will receive income from it before their financial year end – lowering its anticipated deficit for 2016/17 to around £70,000.

McCormack addressed the student union’s budgetary issues more broadly in the email, saying they have been a “worrying preoccupation” for both him and CUSU fundraising and services manager Jennifer Payne.

Addressing scrutiny which he has come under from both student press and CUSU Council members in the wake of the funding crisis, McCormack said “Whilst within my role I am to oversee CUSU’s operations and ongoing financial performance, a larger part of my role is in communicating the content, performance and risk of [CUSU]’s various activities to the Board of Trustees and elected officers so they may make informed decisions about the Union’s resources.”

He added “I hope that, internally at least, everyone can have full confidence that the Board have been properly informed from day one”


Mountain View

Analysis How CUSU lost about £300,000 in three years

The email makes no mention of potential staffing cuts, which were floated in CUSU’s preliminary draft budget. That document, circulated to Council in late April, said under current forecasts CUSU “will not meet a break-even budget in the medium- to longer-term without deeper reductions in expenditure, which will likely result in reductions to the staff and/or officer team.”

McCormack concluded by saying “I am absolutely committed to this students’ union and I am confident CUSU will move past its current situation”.

On Monday, Council voted to launch a student-led inquiry in Michaelmas term, which will attempt to scrutinise the events and decisions which led to CUSU’s funding crisis.

St James’s House has declined offers to comment