Siyang Wei, Connor MacDonald, and Evie Aspinall – the candidates for CUSU president – who clashed tonight over the issue of PreventLouis Ashworth

Hustings for CUSU president, GU president, and other sabbatical roles were held this evening at the University Centre. Students gathered to hear the candidates answer questions about their policy preferences and visions.

This year was one of the most competitive on record, with only three roles left uncontested, unlike last year, when every role except CUSU president and university councillor was uncontested. Three students are running for university councillor, three for GU president, two for access officer, and two for welfare and rights officer.

Prevent: a major point of contention in an otherwise uneventful presidential debate

The highlight of the night was the CUSU presidential debate, with Siyang Wei, Evie Aspinall, and Connor MacDonald competing to be the next leader of the student union.

There were very few perceptible differences in the policy platforms of each candidate, noted by one questioner, who referenced Varsity’s policy matrix. Their sentiments were echoed by Keir Murison, a contender for the position last year, who asked candidates, to “sort you out,” which issue they would choose to solve if they could only pick one.


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Poll: Who should be CUSU’s next president?

However, it soon emerged that candidates’ approaches differed to a large extent. Aspinall listed her priority as widening CUSU’s reach “beyond people who are activists”, to make CUSU “a much more legitimate” and “much more respected institution”. MacDonald repeatedly emphasised making information more available to JCRs through CUSU, to assist in rent negotiations and making a “welfare Tompkins Table.” He repeatedly drew on his experience as a former JCR president, saying “he wants to bring that sense of expertise and understanding” to CUSU. Wei said their platform is about “coordination and working together,” with “collaboration” as a “very powerful thing.” They wished to “reach out beyond the established activist groups” to encourage wider student involvement.

There was a noticeable clash over the government’s counter-terrorism Prevent policy, which has been made a legal duty in British universities. MacDonald has tried to distance himself from his image as a Conservative throughout his campaign. He is currently Chairman of Cambridge University Conservative Association (CUCA), but stressed his previous record of progressive policies in an interview with Varsity, and recently praised a Cambridge University Labour Club (CULC) homelessness initiative on his campaign Facebook page.

Siyang Wei and Evie Aspinall both opposed Connor MacDonald on the issue of Prevent in the most heated exchange between the presidential candidatesLouis Ashworth

However, as soon as questions at the hustings turned towards Prevent, he received a very muted response from the audience, many of whom were active members of CUSU liberation campaigns. While he acknowledged a need to look at how we can “more effectively and more adequately implement” the policy, he also said that the duty is a “necessary one.”

Wei and Aspinall took a totally different stance. Wei called Prevent “incredibly dangerous,” saying it is “so incredibly vague and so incredibly invasive that it creates a culture of paranoia.” They acknowledged that as a legal duty, the University needs to implement it “in a way that bears in mind student welfare,” calling for a rights-based approach modelled on Oxford’s.

Aspinall broadly agreed with Wei, saying Prevent is “obviously racist,” and has “a very harmful effect.” However, Aspinall was forced to admit that she had little prior experience with several key issues throughout the night, after being prompted by several specific questions. She said she was “not the most knowledgeable person on Prevent,” but wanted to phrase it “as a human rights issue.” She said she would plan to facilitate discussion with Islamic Society and Palestine Society, allowing them to take the lead – very closely mirroring Joe Cotton’s stance earlier on in the evening.

The presidential hustings covered a broad range of topics, including decolonising the curriculum, engaging with the Graduate Union, inequalities between CUSU liberation movements, and inequalities between colleges.

There was slight disagreement over CUSU engagement. All candidates agreed on a need for more CUSU engagement, but Wei noted that engagement is “more than how often you see my face” – with CUSU needing to focus on engaging with students in how they develop policies. Aspinall contested this, saying most students do not understand what CUSU does for them. To be a more visible presence, Aspinall maintained that “you need to be in their face.” MacDonald also said that he cares about student engagement, but would do this through working groups; noting that as JCR president, biweekly meetings were not “focused or detailed enough to get things done”.

Access candidates come to blows over educational backgrounds

Rhiannon Melliar-Smith and Shadab Ahmed, the candidates for access and funding officer, had a heated discussion over access issuesLouis Ashworth

There were notable tensions in the race for access and funding officer, with Shadab Ahmed and Rhiannon Melliar-Smith coming to blows over their educational backgrounds.

After Ahmed highlighted information that suggests that private school students are more likely to be picked up from the pool because they are “gunning for their tripos”, Melliar-Smith responded: “I just want to say I went to a state school and I was gunning for my tripos.”


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Access race erupts as Ahmed accuses Melliar-Smith of defamation

Ahmed also raised the issue of the ‘six flags’ used by admissions tutors to consider socioeconomic background. Melliar-Smith retorted, asking Ahmed if he thought that such a system meant that there was not a problem.

In the immediate aftermath of their hustings dispute, Ahmed took to Facebook to accuse Melliar-Smith of defamation, claiming that Melliar-Smith’s focus on her state school background and “interjections” during questioning “implied that I am not also someone from a state school background”.

Melliar-Smith vehemently denied this claim, stating that “a statement of fact is not a derogatory statement”.

Graduate Union president

Joe Cotton, Sofia Ropek Hewson, and Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar faced off for the role of GU presidentLouis Ashworth

The penultimate debate of the night was between candidates for Graduate Union presidency. Joe Cotton, Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar, and Sofia Ropek Hewson faced off for the role. One theme of the debate was the need for greater cooperation between the GU and the MCRs.

Another theme was the relationship between the liberation campaigns and MCRs. Hewson argued that more MCR liberation officers. The other candidates agreed, but Guha Majumdar warned of the risk of tokenism and highlighting the importance of considering intersectionality.

Other contested positions: university councillor and welfare and rights officer

Hugo Laros, Marcel Llavero Pasquina, and George Breckenridge discussed strategy and diplomacy in the race for university councillorLouis Ashworth

The hustings opened with a debate from between the candidates for university councillor. The University Council is the principle executive and decision-making body the University, and the winning candidate will be one of the 23 members of the council.

The candidates are George Breckenridge, Marcel Llavero Pasquina, and Hugo Larose. Breckenridge highlighted his experience, lack of distinct political allegiance, and endorsement from CULC. Llavero Pasquina, who is heavily involved in Zero Carbon, took consistently left-wing positions. Larose highlighted his focus on welfare and mental health.

Christine Pungong and Walinase Chinula, the two candidates for welfare and rights officerLouis Ashworth

Later in the night, Walinase Chinula and Christine Pungong faced off for the position of welfare and rights officer, who works for both CUSU and the GU. Chinula summarised her candidacy as one that sought welfare every day and everywhere, and she stressed the importance of accessibility and increasing awareness of welfare services.

Pungong repeatedly stressed the importance of training tutors, college counsellors, and college welfare officers, and she also suggested the creation of a forum for college welfare officers to relay their problems and concerns.

Uncontested positions: women’s officer, education officer, disabled students’ officer

Claire Sosienski Smith, candidate for women's officer; Emrys Travis, candidate for disabled students' officer; Matt Kite, candidate for education officerLouis Ashworth

Despite the competitiveness of this year’s elections, there remained a number of uncontested positions, including women’s officer, education officer, and disabled students’ officer.

The first unopposed candidate to speak was Claire Sosienski Smith, who is running for women’s officer. She summarised her campaign as inclusive, supportive, and unapologetic, and she proposed engaging with college women’s officers in a termly forum.

Matt Kite also ran unopposed for education officer. He stressed his experience organising strike solidarity and also argued that CUSU could engage more with faculty representatives by encouraging them to take an active, political role.

The final unopposed candidate to speak was Emrys Travis, who is running for disabled students’ officer. Emrys highlighted their experience with disabled student issues, saying that they were part of the original group that campaigned for the creation of the role and mentioning their current position as disabled rep for the Women’s Campaign and CUSU LGBT+. They touched a range of issues, including wheelchair accessibility, assessment reform, and Disability Resource Centre funding.

Voting for all positions opens on Tuesday, and the results will be announced on Friday afternoon.

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