Cockburn, left, and Byrne, right, at Friday's CUSU/GU election hustingsBella Peng

University Councillor is not a student-facing sabbatical position, and is one that tends to primarily attract attention from student campaigners – with divestment campaigners in particular historically engaging with this role. Last Friday’s hustings saw the two candidates for the role diverge sharply on the approach they would take to work with University bureaucracy.

Poppy Cockburn, a first year undergraduate at Robinson College, does not have the extensive experience of working within structures of governance and bureaucracy boasted by Tamzin Byrne, who is currently undertaking a master’s at Judge Business School.

Nevertheless, it was clear from the support in the room that Cockburn has the backing of Zero Carbon and Cambridge Defend Education, two vocal activist powerhouses within Cambridge who have also both formally endorsed her candidacy.

Byrne to suggest divestment “alternatives”

Cockburn’s speech highlighted her alignment with Zero Carbon in particular. She declared that she was running “a very pro-divestment campaign,” and her emphasis on how the Divestment Working Group was “doomed from the start” demonstrated how Cockburn has followed the zeitgeist of Cambridge student campaigning. Her commitment to acting as a voice for students on Council was evident.

Byrne’s calls for divestment took a more cautious tone than those of her opponent and of many divestment activists. Although Byrne stated that “I care about all the same things that all of you do – I care about divestment, I care about rent equality,” she also mentioned targeting “social innovation spaces within the UK where we can actually create positive solutions to questions like divestment by proposing alternatives, and not just lobbying to have the University solve that problem for us”.

This dramatically diverges from the way in which this role has been carried out by Marcel Llavero-Pasquina, the current University Councillor, and may miss the mark with regards to the calls for divestment pushed forward by many left-leaning, politically-active Cambridge students.

In last year’s crucial divestment Council meetings, Umang Khandelwal, Llavero-Pasquina’s predecessor, was criticised for not advocating publicly for University divestment, and in an open letter was urged to “commit to speak and vote in favour of full divestment.”

Byrne’s advocacy of divestment “alternatives” could prove controversial should she be elected, and is a policy which is likely to affect the race’s outcome.

Cockburn lacking in bureaucratic experience

Byrne presented herself in hustings as a student well-qualified for a role that engages closely with the bureaucratic structures of the University. Currently serving as President and Charity Trustee of Murray Edwards MCR and having spent a number of years in full-time work, she stressed that “I’m a business student; I can wear a suit with the best of them” and her ability to “interrogate their finances.”

Byrne spoke about how her professional experience, as well as her time as MCR president and charity trustee at Murray Edwards College has given her an understanding of how high-level University figures operate. Her experience, she argued, would allow her to lobby Council while also using her lived experiences and the stories of “hardship” experienced by other students to make “emotional [pleas]” to “change their hearts and minds.”

It is yet to be seen how Byrne’s appeal to professional experience and competence will be received by undergraduates, as those most engaged with the race may view the role of University Councillor as an overtly political one, committed to full divestment and grassroot organising.

Cockburn acknowledged that she does not have the same “formal qualifications” as Byrne despite time on the Robinson College Student Association as a green officer, but framed this as an advantage, saying that her experience of grassroots campaigning was “more relevant experience” as it has provided her with a better knowledge of student priorities. Cockburn’s pledge to be “very hard on the issues that students have said no to” is sure to garner support among the campaigners and politically-engaged students who have made strong calls for divestment.

Nevertheless, there evidently remains a substantial difference in the experiences of both candidates. Cockburn did not discuss how she might address this gap which could likely see her struggle to navigate the University’s bureaucratic structures.

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Byrne expressed her wish “to make sure that the divestment campaign ‘meshes’ with the legal and financial realities” of the University, so that divestment becomes “a meaningful reality in the next three to five years.” This more bureaucratic approach to the role might well enable Byrne to negotiate effectively and create change from within, but is likely to lead some to call into question how far she would be willing to push back against Council.

Conversely, Cockburn said that she would push “from a hard angle” – arguing that, in the case of divestment, “we can’t just be coming at this from a gentle lobbying perspective, working with the University, because – you know what – we’ve already tried it and they were corrupt.” Whether this would translate into effective negotiating at the University level, however, is not yet clear.

Byrne and Cockburn possess vastly different life experiences and divergent approaches to implementing change should they be elected. Cockburn, although a first year with no experience of University governance, is sure to receive strong voter support following her denouncement of a “gentle” approach to making change within the University. Byrne, however, brings to the table an impressive understanding of working within bureaucratic structures and within the University itself. Nevertheless, her softer line regarding lobbying Council, particularly on divestment, may leave her open to criticism.

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