Insiders within Cambridge’s Students’ Union (SU) have alleged that the institution’s Senior Management Team (SMT) fosters a “toxic environment of bullying, unfair treatment and discrimination,” as well as “institutional racism and misogyny” towards sabbatical officers and SU staff, a Varsity investigation has found.

Varsity has spoken to several representatives from various positions within the SU, who detailed issues including alleged racism, nepotism, and bullying.

This comes after four sabbatical officers resigned in the past year alone. To date, there are no non-male sabbatical officers within the Student Union.

The Cambridge SU: How does it work?

The Cambridge Students' Union (SU) is guided by a team of eight elected sabbatical officers who advocate for and campaign on behalf of students to enhance the student experience throughout the University.

In addition to the central SU, there are seven SU Campaigns, which may have differing policy positions. These include the LGBTQ+, Women's, and BME campaigns, among others.

Supporting the elected sabbatical officers is the Senior Management Team (SMT). The team, which includes positions such as the CEO and Director of Membership Engagement, plays a crucial role in the strategic and operational management of the institution.

As a charity, the Cambridge SU also has a governing body called the Board of Trustees. These are the people responsible for controlling the work, management and administration of the charity on behalf of its beneficiaries.

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The current post-graduate president, Vareesh Pratap, is currently on hunger strike after accusing the Cambridge SU of having become a “quasi-family business”. Anonymous sources have claimed that numerous other individuals from the SU team, other than the sabbatical officers, have also resigned.

Racism and discrimination

Several members of the wider SU team have informed Varsity of serious allegations of racial discrimination and institutional misogyny within the workplace. SU members have reported witnessing colleagues of minority ethnic backgrounds experiencing unfair treatment and harassment by the SMT.

One witness claimed that Black and Asian staff members have been on the receiving end of most of the discrimination. Another witness also raised concerns about how the organisation can effectively address policies regarding racial discrimination when staff members within the SU itself are facing racial harassment.

“[The] SU is supposed to protect the rights of BME students. It is disheartening and shameful to see that the Cambridge SU itself is a centre of racial discrimination,” the source said.

Another source told Varsity that they witnessed female and BME colleagues being “micromanaged” and subjected to “bureaucratic obstacles,” even though they were performing the same tasks as their colleagues. 

Each of the SU’s past three women’s officers have resigned, after Rosie Freeman stepped down last month.


Additional concerns have been raised regarding the SU’s response to the Israel-Gaza war. Harvey Brown, the SU’s Welfare and Community Officer, recently resigned over the organisation’s response to the Israel-Gaza conflict, accusing the SU of being “fragrantly disconnected from student movements”. Cambridge for Palestine has criticised the SU for failing in its obligations to support student welfare following Brown’s resignation.

One source claimed that whenever a team member expresses a desire to support pro-Palestine students in their efforts, they are reminded of the “impartiality” that comes with their role within a charitable organisation.

Another insider told Varsity that the institution is reportedly fearful of repercussions from the University, its biggest funder. As a result, they claimed that the SU sometimes struggles to fulfil its role of defending students.

Jewish students condemned an SU motion in October 2023 which called for a “mass uprising” in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, likened by the proposer to “the first Intifada”. At the time, the University Jewish Society labelled the SU’s decision to table the motion as a “disgrace”.

The Cambridge SU board of trustees recently addressed students’ concerns about their perceived indifference towards the Israel-Gaza war. They stated on their website: “While we can and will always support students’ right to protest, we cannot always use the same tactics as other activists.”

Nepotism and corruption

Staff also made accusations of nepotism within the SU. Varsity was told that the SMT allegedly recruits and promotes senior staff based on loyalty rather than merit, according to multiple sources.

One source described the SU’s operation as akin to a “medieval system of patronage” fostering division among staff in an effort to “divert attention” from the actions of the SMT. Another representative told Varsity that there are “three people in the organisation that have all the power”.

Varsity also spoke to Vareesh Pratap, the postgraduate president of the Student Union, who has been on a hunger strike since last Thursday (16/05) to protest the Cambridge SU resembling a “quasi-family business”. He accused the institution in his open letter, titled “Stop killing Democracy within the University of Cambridge,” of nepotism and arbitrary appointments by top administrative staff.

Pratap also corroborated the allegations heard by Varsity regarding targeted harassment against sabbatical officers, particularly those of colour. The letter also raised alarms about declining democracy integrity, low voter turnout, candidate withdrawals, and sabbatical officers resigning.

“I believe every person of colour within the Cambridge SU, whether sabbatical or non-sabbatical staff, feels the racial discrimination at the institutional level,” the president told Varsity. Following his hunger strike, Pratap was suspended as an employee of the SU within hours and without any signed chargesheet, Varsity understands.

Varsity has also been informed that he was barred from chairing multiple meetings, including the recently held Executive Committee Meeting, despite provisions in the staff handbook which advocate for continued engagement during suspension.

Additionally, a group of students have also launched a petition to trigger an Extraordinary Student Members’ Meeting following student concerns. The petition would require 200 signatures to force the SU to call a meeting.

The students stated that they “are deeply alarmed that half of the eight sabbatical officers have already resigned prematurely”. They also reported feeling disturbed that “there is a recurring trend of sabbatical officers from marginalised identities” stepping down.

Following the open letter and petition, the SU has recently launched a democracy review form on its website, asking students to comment on what democracy means to them and on the organisation’s strengths and weaknesses.

Sources from within the SU have also raised concerns regarding the lack of transparency in financial transactions. This was also referenced in the petition, which questioned “where the student’s money is going”.

In Pratap’s open letter, one of the key inquiries posed is whether financial transaction details are being deliberately hidden from student representatives, even after repeated requests by major union officers.

One of the demands in the letter is to grant approval and viewer rights to trustees under the SU’s financial enterprise resource planning system. The signatory of the letter claim that this would enable close monitoring of expenditures and empower major union officers to effectively carry out their duties.

In the last financial year, the SU received just over £1.3 million pounds in income and spent just a fraction more, at around £1.4 million.

Micromanagement and bullying

One insider said that the SMT is responsible for micromanagement and for targeting employees with bullying and harassment. Another source claimed that questioning management decisions could lead to arbitrary disciplinary actions, with unclear explanations of employees’ rights or procedures for appealing such measures.

The same insider revealed that the SU’s decision-making processes are “not transparent,” especially regarding financial transactions. They stated that HR often cites “confidentiality concerns” as a reason for withholding documents requested by staff members, even when there are supposedly none. The same person has claimed that “a lot of staff members have struggled mentally” due to this alleged toxic culture.

Another told Varsity that the job “completely tanked [their] mental health” and that the working culture could be changed “if management was less controlling and less reputation obsessed”. They told Varsity: “I felt isolated at work for most of the year."


Mountain View

PG president begins hunger strike over SU failings

Another source informed Varsity that reports of this “toxic culture” represent just the surface of the issue, claiming that staff members have been “pushed out of their jobs for wanting to do the right things”.

They likened the Cambridge SU to a “glorified post-GCSE apprenticeship,” alleging that it operates primarily for the benefit of the SMT rather than the students it is intended to serve. “The SU is a house of secrets. There is no question that there is a deep-rooted culture of corruption in the SU,” the source claimed.

The Cambridge SU told Varsity that it: “acknowledges that some sources have made comments regarding the culture of the students’ union, and would like to reiterate our commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion. We aim to ensure that all staff feel safe, respected and trusted within their capacity as staff members within the organisation.”

“The students’ union takes any report of discrimination, bullying and harassment. Cambridge SU wants to hear the experiences of staff and to ensure staff feel able to report via the appropriate processes in order for us to take action. It is critical that we understand how to do better and create an environment where staff, elected representatives and students can thrive and we are committed to doing the work necessary to be the best organisation we can be,” they said.

“Any complaints or grievances received by Cambridge SU will be appropriately actioned and investigated, however specific instances are difficult to investigate when they are raised only in comments made anonymously to the media,” they added.