The Graduate Union was described as having experienced a “series of problems”Simon Lock

The survival of the Graduate Union (GU) may be at stake as the university reviews its services.

According to an internal document leaked exclusively to Varsity, the University of Cambridge is undertaking a review focusing on “whether the university should continue to recognise the GU as the body representing the university’s graduate students and, if not, how graduate students can be best represented”.

Senior figures referenced problems with the organisation of the GU, with minutes saying that “removal of the GU from the Charity Commission’s register of charities earlier in 2015 was one of the more recent examples of a series of problems that had beset the GU in recent years”.

The review is due to focus on “the question of whether the GU or CUSU should be recognised as the body to represent graduate students in the future”, according to the document. The working group that is producing the review is chaired by Professor Graham Virgo, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education.

The review’s final report is due to be presented to the University Council on 15th February. It has been conducted “with a view to making a recommendation to the Regent House” by the end of Lent term.

The Graduate Union’s website states that it “takes concerns” raised by its members to a “wide range of of university committees”, pursues campaigns, and acts as the “voice” for graduate and mature students.

The Graduate Union has had a troubled recent history. Last year’s election for the GU position, branded “irresponsible” by one candidate for president, was the subject of a proctorial review after a vote “miscount”. The GU lost its charitable status with the Charity Commission in February 2015 after failing to file its annual accounts.

Meanwhile, CUSU have formally announced their intention to seek to bring graduate services under their banner. In their Strategic Plan for the years 2014-17 they listed as a Strategic Target a “formal merger with the Graduate Union that protects the autonomy of grad students and grad-specific services”. The plan, released before the GU lost its charitable status, describes the situation as there being “two separate charitable bodies with identical aims and membership”.

Furthermore, CUSU’s Strategic Plan states that the GU “has consistently stumbled from crisis to crisis over the past decade”.

CUSU President Priscilla Mensah told Varsity that a joining of the two bodies would involve “potentially merging some of the practical ways that CUSU and the GU could work together”.

“I don’t think the answer is merging the GU with CUSU,” said Chad Allen, who was elected as GU President in a by-election following the election last year. He raised questions about how the two organisations could be practically merged, saying that “the only thing I’m not open-minded to is just having a graduate sabb in CUSU”. He pointed to the 1994 Education Act’s guidance for student unions, which states that “appointment to major union offices should be by election in a secret ballot in which all members are entitled to vote”, saying that it could create a situation in which a graduate sabb was a minor officer, and not afforded the same powers as other members of the sabbatical team.

“I’m not saying it’s impossible that would work,” Allen said. “I think that’s a very compromised situation for a graduate sabb to find themselves in”.

Mensah disagreed with Allen’s vision of combined services, emphasising that a merger would require a wider restructuring of CUSU. She told Varsity that if the university chose to cease to recognise the GU “CUSU could not look the same way it does now... things would have to change for both organisations”.

Asked whether he thought that CUSU’s sabbatical officers saw the university’s review as an opportunity for a power grab, Allen responded “Maybe... but for the right reasons. It’s not a personal thing”.

Allen spoke about the need to sustain representation, pointing to the increasing numbers of graduates, who have made up the majority of the full-time student intake since 2010.

“In five or 10 years’ time, it could be that graduate students are the vast majority,” he said.

The leaked document noted the need to “consult with the graduate student community by inviting comments from JCRs and MCRs by email on the questions to be considered by the review group, by a deadline in December”.

One college's MCR President told Varsity that “feedback from our MCR members has shown very mixed feelings on the subject”.

“We feel we could have had further consultation and more information from the university than what we did receive,” they added. “We were informed about the ‘Survey on representation of graduate students’ in the GU bulletin last December and through various other email lists...there has been little other information from the university itself and very little background explaining why it was being conducted was provided with the survey. Furthermore, to our knowledge, to date there has been no feedback to students on the outcome of this survey”.

The MCR President claimed that members were concerned that if CUSU took on the responsibility for mature students, there may be a reduction in “the quality of the services they currently provide” because CUSU is “primarily undergraduate focused.”

Brendan Mahon, speaking as St Edmund’s Combination Room President, criticised the Graduate Union heavily. “How can such a mess of an organisation possibly represent graduate students properly?” said Mahon. “They were de-registered as a charity, which is a pretty special level of incompetence.”

“CUSU is actually run properly. With a grad sabb, the voice of grads won’t get lost in undergrad problems, like Chad Allen seems to suggest.” Mahon has previously chaired CUSU Council, but chose not to speak in that capacity.

“It is important for graduate students to have their own representation due to their needs being different from those of undergraduates,” said the MCR President who spoke to Varsity. “However, the benefit of having a distinct body solely for graduates is lost when that body is not well run and does not provide the support that graduates require. We are concerned that, despite the improvements the current GU President is promising, the lack of resources and personnel the GU currently has has made it something of an uphill battle for them.”

A spokesperson for the university said: “The review is ongoing and the final report is due to be presented to the University Council in Lent term.”

The minutes from a University Council meeting on 19th October last year show that Dr Richard Anthony, Bursar at St Edmund’s, reported on the topic of the GU.

The minutes of that University Council meeting state that “The Committee had been disappointed that no member of the GU Trustee Board had been able to attend the meeting to respond to the Committee’s serious concerns about the governance of the GU in person.”

They also said that “The removal of the GU from the Charity Commission’s register of charities earlier in 2015 was one of the more recent examples of a series of problems that had beset the GU in recent years”.

Anthony reported that the problems had “distracted the GU from its primary function”. The minutes state that “feedback from Dr Anthony’s own college suggested that the GU was not performing adequately”.

Sources within CUSU have told Varsity that the university’s review may have created a rift within CUSU’s sabbatical team. “I think we’re united in our shared interest that graduates need robust and effective representation”, said Mensah, but recognised that “we’re all individuals”. She said she would “never speculate” as to what conclusions the review will reach.

At a meeting of the Council Committee for the Supervision of the Student Unions (CCSSU) in September last year, it was recorded that the GU and CUSU, as well as Cambridge’s JCRs and MCRs, have “received the worst score in the UK for students’ satisfaction with their students’ union”.

The resolution of a debate from May last year describes how there “had been a concern that the GU was proposing to withdraw its funding of the post” of joint CUSU/GU Welfare and Rights Officer.

The minutes of the CCSSUU meeting state that “following discussions over the summer with the CUSU officers, the GU had agreed to continue to fund its share of the costs of the joint post”.

This week saw the installation, after some delay, of a door into the offices of CUSU, the GU and 17 Mill Lane. Both bodies have spoken to Varsity about the frustration caused by students being unable to physically have access to the student services they offer. “It’s very hard to provide services when you have to direct people halfway through a building to get to see you,” said Allen.

Until the final report is presented to the University Council next month, it seems that a question mark will hang over the Graduate Union.

This article has been updated to amend claims about the outcomes of last year's Graduate Union election.

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