Both Deloitte employees and students attended the Deloitte sponsored Week four debate on the European UnionYao Tang

The Cambridge Union Society has entered into a sponsorship deal with professional services firm Deloitte.

Joanna Mobed, President of the Cambridge Union, and Vice-President Alex Porter said in a joint statement to Varsity: “The Cambridge Union Society is very happy to be starting a three-year collaboration with Deloitte, through which Deloitte will be providing the Union with a range of services, including the technical expertise that has already allowed us to overhaul our website and expand our wireless capabilities.

“Additionally, recent improvements to the building, including the installation of a disabled toilet and a new speakers room for smaller events, have only been possible due to such sponsorship.”

In recent years the Union has consistently reported bad financial returns. In the Union’s financial report for the twelve months leading up to June 2012, there was a reported £169,105 net loss. This was the fourth year that the Union had made an overall loss.

The 2012 report concluded that despite “record membership numbers, higher sponsorship, better investment returns, and a greater contribution from the charity’s trading arm” the Union remained unable to cope with the high costs involved in running the organisation.

The statement from the Union added: “The Union’s partnership with Deloitte will ensure that membership price increases are kept at bay, as well as allowing us to continue to subside membership to Newton Trust Bursary holders.”

It was pointed out that the Union currently charges £185 for life membership compared to the Oxford Union’s price of £236. And Newton Trust Bursary holders receive life membership for £95. The Union said that “support from Deloitte will help the Union to expand on our access and debating work with schools throughout the UK.”

But some Union members have raised concerns about the possible negative effects of the Deloitte sponsorship agreement. Writing to Varsity, Union member Jack Pulman-Slater expressed his dismay at the presence of Deloitte employees at Week Four’s European Union debate. At the debate there was a lack of seating for Union members because of the many seats reserved for Deloitte employees, and there are some reports of disruptive behaviour on their part.

Responding to these complaints, Mobed and Porter said in their statement: “The Union would like to apologise for the lack of seats reserved for members at the Week 4 Debate. This was a one-off event organised with the local branch of Deloitte, and will not be a recurring aspect of the new partnership.”

Further concerns have been raised about how the affiliation with Deloitte might affect the Union’s ability to uphold its identity as a society for the promotion of free speech. One Union member who wished to remain anonymous said: “I don’t see how this [the sponsorship affiliation] can’t fundamentally change the nature of the Cambridge Union.

“In any kind of corporate deal of this sort there are tacit understandings about what can and can’t be said about the other party. That just doesn’t bode well for a centuries-old debating society whose tagline has the words ‘free speech’ in it.”

The Union responded: “Deloitte will not be choosing the speakers or debate motions and the Union will remain a society dedicated to free speech, which prioritises its members’ interests.

“We believe the partnership will allow us to do that through maintaining membership costs and continuing our charitable work and ensuring the maintenance of the building for future generations.”

However, some members of the Union argue the worth of the new deal. Sachin Parathalingam, a first-year lawyer at King’s who spoke in the EU debate attended by Deloitte employees, said: “Any large-scale organisation like the Union requires financial support to run its events. This is a natural phenomenon.

“I do not have a detailed understanding of the link with Deloitte, but as a Union member I am sure that such a link could help keep costs as minimal as possible.

“As for the EU debate, it was arguably one of the most popular debates of the year and so obviously many people did not get seats. I personally was not disturbed by the Deloitte presence. The front row seats were reserved for guests of the speakers as is customary at the Union.”

This is the first time the Society has accepted corporate sponsorship for the Union organisation. It regularly accepts and seeks out sponsorship for individual debates and events.

At the time of going to print on Thursday evening, Deloitte representatives were unavailable for comment on this matter.

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