Banerjee, Chadwick and Ceccarelli at hustings last FridayBELLA PENG

While the CUSU elections invariably attract the most attention, over 9,000 graduate students are also being polled this week to elect a new president of the Graduate Union (GU). This year, three candidates are competing for the role in one of the most competitive campaigns in recent years.

Candidates to the highest sabbatical office of the graduate representative body are expected to bring a wide range of experiences from outside of Cambridge to their campaigns.

Alessandro Ceccarelli is a PhD student in Archaeology at Magdalene and the current LGBT+ Officer for the GU. In his eleven years in higher education he has been involved in multiple student campaigns, emphasising his contribution to LGBT+ activism. He says that his work as LGBT+ Officer has primarily been in “organising events and giving visibility to others.” Ceccarelli breaks his campaign down into three themes: “Working with the University”, “student representation” and “colleges”. He states that his manifesto is “heavily oriented towards minorities”, with multiple pledges to offer greater representation to LGBT+, female and BME students.

Jack Chadwick is an MPhil student in Sociology. He currently serves on the GU as its Disabilities Officer, which he says made him realise the “massive gaps” in provision for disabled students at graduate level compared with his CUSU counterparts. “There isn’t a due process [for accessing disabilities resources]”, he argues. “What I’ve tried to lead on is codifying the process at departmental level.” Access forms the backbone of his campaign, especially for groups from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Devarchan Banerjee, an MPhil student in Developmental Studies, had previously studied in India where he was involved in various developmental projects, including establishing a farmer cooperative for women in the Sundarbans region of West Bengal. Despite having no particular experience in student politics in the UK, Banerjee emphasises that “working in these kind of scenarios gives you patience and grit. I was up against bureaucracy, funding agencies and so on.” He wants to promote a “stakeholder focus” in expanding engagement with graduate politics, emphasising that the GU currently runs on a “one-shot democracy” without the proper involvement of students after elections.

Banerjee’s manifesto pledges therefore focus on increasing transparency and communication between the constituent parts of the University. He argues that while the GU is “limited in its power to coordinate”, it can act as a crucial conduit between MCRs and University-level decision making, which he argues is currently unfulfilled. Unique among the candidates is Banerjee’s emphasis on “technical competence” in the GU’s capacity to increase engagement. Web-based open discussion forums and online “grievance redress system”, which would allow students to track the progress of their disputes with university institutions online, form part of a technologically-driven campaign to promote engagement.

Chadwick emphasises the importance of improving coordination within the institution, indicating a willingness to formalise procedures, such as for accessing disability resources. His main focus, however, is access, which he argues has been “completely left by the wayside by the University”. He wants to continue the commitment of the current President in promoting the Student Support Initiative, and create a “specific office for financial need” within the University. He wants the GU to commission a survey “collecting data on the demographic intake” in order to “really pressure the university”, citing the increasing costs on graduate study year-on-year.

“All three candidates expressed a desire to reform the culture surrounding student politics”

Access to graduate study is a chief concern of all three candidates. Ceccarelli says that he is currently working in collaboration with other graduate students to establish an “internal funding scheme” to increase access to graduate funding, by providing a transparent centralised database for sources of funding. He also expresses a commitment to continuing the housing review underway by the GU, and is keen to explore the better integration of private housing options.

Banerjee wants to introduce a “competitive framework” in order to bring down college living costs “on a dynamic basis”. This would involve establishing an online “leaderboard” of colleges with breakdowns by costs, which Banerjee argues would encourage colleges to lower their rent costs in order to attract prospective students.

While the commitment of the candidates to promoting greater diversity is near unanimous, different policies emerge between them. Banerjee’s focus concerns making University spaces, such as the Cambridge Union, more accessible to international students. He is also keen to foster relations with international institutions, including universities in the developing world, through library-sharing schemes and the expansion of research exchanges.

Chadwick proposes to challenge the University’s policy of not accepting applicants from universities “it deems to be academically poor”, arguing that many non-Russell Group institutions “are responsible for educating many working-class students.”

The most ambitious plans regarding representation perhaps come from Ceccarelli, who proposes to establish a system of collegiate “champions”, elected members of staff who sit on college general councils to represent minority groups. “The colleges should take responsibility for tackling discrimination,” he says.

Voting turnouts for both the CUSU and GU elections remain low, indicating an engagement deficit among the student body. All three candidates expressed a desire to reform the culture surrounding student politics. Ceccarelli emphasises the personal duty of sabbatical officers to “be more in the streets, rather than in Mill Lane writing handbooks”. Chadwick argues that “the formality of politics at Cambridge has become fetishised”, and that outreach can be encouraged through de-formalising engagements between students and representatives, such as at hustings.

Banerjee, meanwhile, emphasises the need for greater communication with college MCRs “The MCR mailing list almost never includes Graduate Union discussion points”. It is the responsibility of the GU to organise “discussion forums, open houses, to get more students to talk more about the issues we’re proposing.”

When asked about the possible difficulties of the role, Banerjee re-emphasises the limited powers of the Union as a whole: “it is important not to over-promise”. He says that “Cambridge is a well-meaning place, it’s just that it’s so big and aggregated that it doesn’t notice the people who fall through the cracks”. His commitment to greater integration and communication, founded on better use of online resources, reflects this reservation, yet he is hopeful that greater transparency will promote better engagement.


Mountain View

Despite a number of highly-contested races, CUSU/GU election hustings see little conflict

Chadwick is more critical of the University’s role in student life, describing the institution’s policies on access as “hypocrisy”. He believes the one-year tenure of President is too short for meaningful change, pledging to a run for a second term if he got elected. “That’s important for democracy, because in the second election people actually have a chance to vote for you on what you’ve done.”

Like Banerjee, Ceccarelli raises concerns about the implementation of policy across the University’s institutions, stating that, “to what extent I can be passionate and straightforward with my colleagues, instead of being political” is his main concern.

All three candidates offer policies on the key issues surrounding this election, but differences of emphasis arise. This is particularly true of activism. Chadwick’s manifesto pledge to draft a “bill of rights” for graduate staff reflects his emphasis throughout the discussion on combating perceived injustices within the institution. The other two candidates offer a more collaborative stance regarding the University, though Ceccarelli’s emphasis on minority representation puts him broadly within the same style of campaign. Banerjee’s approach reflects a more cautious attitude to institutional change, while his emphasis on technology is a novel solution to the problem of engagement.

Polls close on 5pm on Friday evening.

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